Thomas Barrett

Off to watch the Eclispe :)

Favourite Thing: I love the feeling you get when your work has gone well and you have collected new data. Stuff that no one else has ever seen before and it’s your chance to tell people about it.



Plantsbrook Secondary School (2002 – 2009) University of Birmingham (2009 – 2013) PhD Open University (2013 – Present)


13 GCSE’s, 1 As and 5 A levels, Msci in Geology

Work History:

I have worked as a Lab intern at the University of Leeds and Liverpool as well as collaborated with NASA on my PhD but basically I have always been a student :D

Current Job:

I am a PhD student at the Open University


The Open University

Me and my work

I study the rocks that have crashed to earth from space to hunt for water.

So I hunt for water in a particular set of meteorites which come from the asteroid Vesta.

Asteroids are thought to be the shattered remnants of small bodies formed within the young Sun’s solar nebula. These ‘minor bodies’ are therefore key to understanding how the solar system formed and evolved. As leftover planetary building blocks, they are of great importance in understanding the compositions and evolution of planets. They may also provide clues to the delivery of water, to the early Earth. Water along with other volatile elements play a very important role in how a planet forms and develops through their influence on melting, viscosity, magma crystallization and volcanic eruption.

Water is also key to life as we know it. “Follow the water” has been a saying used a lot in space science when looking for potentially habitable moons or planets.  My work is trying to find out if there is water in meteorites and asteroids, where that water comes from and how water arrived on Earth.

To do this I look at a specific mineral found in meteorites and normal terrestrial rocks called apatite (it’s the same stuff that makes up our bones and teeth) as this mineral is know to be able to contain water. After finding these using a powerful microscope, far more powerful than those at your schools, I get to coat the sample in pure gold and fire a tiny ion beam at the apatite which blasts a small crater in the mineral. We then measure the particles that we have blasted out. This is secondary ion mass spectrometry or SIMS. myimage7

Recently I have also expanded into looking at other volatile elements such as C, N and maybe (if we can sort it out) noble gases. So that is all new and exciting.

My Typical Day

The cliche of no two days are the same really is true, it’s mostly lab work with a bit of office time stuck on to look at the results.

One of the great things about this job is there is no typical day! My hours are flexible as long as my work is done, sometimes I might be in the lab all day taking images or making measurements on one of the many different instruments I use, others I might be sitting at my desk furiously typing to try to get my work ready to present to other scientists at a conference. There can be quite a bit of reading or data analysis (both are unfortunate but necessary parts of science) but it usually comes in waves before and after lab work.

A lot of the time I have random little jobs to do or problems to work out how to solve. Most days are a mixture of all of the above, or sometimes I get to go to interesting events, do talks, meet other interesting people and everything else between.

I cannot however start a day without a cup of tea, and need regular refueling throughout the day!

What I'd do with the money

I’d spend the money on better outreach material so I can insipre YOU.

With the money I would most likely create an outreach kit. Basically a big strong box of interesting science stuff that could be easily transported to and from schools to help show off the more interesting bits of science. I would look into getting a small projector for presentations, some samples of meteorites/scale model of a space craft as well as ingredients for small experiment presentations which people could join in with, to allow a proper hands on experience.

If there was any money left over I would purchase the best most up to date textbook on the history of the universe and solar system so I could use it for my research but also for my knowledge of planetary science for OUTREACH and STEM school visits. Plus I imagine there are some pretty pictures in there to show around as well 🙂

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Determined, Friendly, Curious

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I like most music but I’m currently in a bit more of a metal phase so I will go with Mastodon (great band plus I like the fossil name :P)

What's your favourite food?


What is the most fun thing you've done?

As part of my Scouts explorer belt I was dropped off in the middle of Italy with only a map, a destination and a list of challenges in Italian. I’d had a one hour Italian lesson and didn’t know where I was but my group of three did the challenge and got on Italian TV doing it!

What did you want to be after you left school?

University lecturer

Were you ever in trouble at school?

The occasional elaborate but harmless practical joke was played…..

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Work at NASA Johnson Space Center and hold a sample from their Apollo Moon Rock collection

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Mr King and Mr Fleet my physics teachers at school. If you’re reading this guys, I made it! Thank you :D

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I have no idea. I’ve always wanted to do science since I was young. When I was at NASA I asked about their astronaut training programme, so I am going to apply this year. I’d trade my job for that!

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Go to space, be fluent in a language, have my lab machines actually work for me! :P

Tell us a joke.

I tried to tell a chemistry joke at school the other day. I got no reaction.

Other stuff

Work photos:

In terms of machines I use microscopes, lasers, furnaces and everything in between really.

Me with the scanning electron microscope (SEM) a powerful microscope able to see things smaller than the width of a human hair. myimage3

And a close up of inside the SEM. myimage4

This is the machine I mentioned earlier in the my work section and the main machine I use for my project (other than the SEM) to get results. Its called a NanoSIMS 50L (SIMS stands for Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer). I call her Nancy 🙂

Nancy’s control desk. myimage1

Below is FINESSE which has a laser attached to it as well as the furnace. We use either of these to basically burn space rocks and measure the gases that are released for things such as C & N. myimage5

Last but not least is the Raman laser. This machine needs to be kept in a clean room (hence the funky suit and beard mask) and uses different coloured lasers to help us work out the different mineral phases in a rock. It needs to be run in the darkness as the laser is so weak even a bit of light will mess up the results. myimage6