By Kelly

Did we mention that this week is Earth Sciences week? Did we also mention that it is Ada Lovelace Day today? Well it is, read more about the origins of the day here, but in short today we celebrate inspirational women in science, engineering and technology. And seeing it is also Earth Sciences week let’s start by celebrating an up and coming Earth Scientist who also happens to be a woman.

I recently caught up with one of our brightest talents from the 2011 cohort of Honours students. And I’m not just biased because she is an Earth Scientist and a woman, Marita Smith won a University Medal for her efforts last year, so clearly I’m not the only one who thinks she’s it and a bit. Here’s what she has to say about her stellar year at uni, and her research:

“2011 was the most challenging, incredible year of my tertiary studies. My honours project involved two separate stints on the amazing Australian research vessel, the RV Southern Surveyor, research at the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and the Université Bordeaux (France) in addition to our fantastic world-class institution, the ANU. As well as an appreciation for Dutch cheese and some serious crepe-making practice, I had the opportunity to be part of some exciting climate science.

I come from a cell and molecular biology and chemistry background and was driven to the Earth Sciences by a desire to use chemistry in an environmental context. Rocks and sediments (particularly marine sediments) can frequently represent a continuous geological record of climate through the gradual deposition of organic matter over time. Some organic compounds are extremely resistant to diagenesis (decomposition) and survive as molecular fossils, or biomarkers. My project involved the analysis of biomarkers in marine sediment cores collected along the east coast of Australia on the RV Southern Surveyor. My particular interest was in several classes of algal and archaeal lipids that are used to reconstruct sea-surface temperature via several organic proxies (UK’­37, TEX86 and LDI).  Back in the lab, I extracted organic compounds from these sediments and separated them into different fractions based on polarity. I analysed the concentrations of these lipids using gas-chromatography and liquid-chromatography in order to reconstruct sea-surface temperatures over the past 340 years in the south-eastern Australian region.

In the Australian region, there are no marine sediment cores that extend over the last several hundred years, so my honours work forms the first record of sea-surface temperatures over the last 340 years in the Australian region. In addition, it is the first study combining all three independent biomarker proxies to reconstruct sea-surface temperature.

I had a lot of fun, learned a lot and met some amazing scientists who have instilled in me a deep love for this field, particularly my superhero supervisors, Patrick De Deckker and Jochen Brocks. My advice for students considering honours is to explore your options – there are so many amazing scientists out there (many of them at the Research School of Earth Sciences) you are bound to find a project that you can be excited about every day (and this is important). It’s easy to be motivated when you can see how your project can contribute to our understanding of environmental and climatic change (for instance). I’d also recommend doing some fundamental science courses in your undergraduate – a bit of chemistry and biology will really serve you well.”

Watch this space people, I have no doubt we will be seeing many more wonderful things from Marita.

For a rather large file on organic proxies, I found a great Powerpoint on the web here. And for a great portal on what’s happening across the Earth to celebrate it check out this site here, or learn more about why we celebrate women in science, I’ve written about it before here, here and here, or check out this article in the UK Guardian here.