Jamie Gilmour is Professor of Planetary Science. He is also the Director of Teaching.
"The great thing about adding planetary science to your geology degree is that it opens extra options for your future."
Planetary Science at Manchester
Planetary science is about trying to understand how our solar system and the bodies within it formed and evolved. For instance, how did something like the Earth originate as a by-product of the formation of a star from the collapse of a molecular cloud? Comparing our developing understanding of what happened in our solar system to what we are beginning to find out about other solar systems around other stars allows us to consider how widespread stable, hospitable environments like the Earth might be in the universe.
In Manchester we have a community of researchers in this field who are among the best in the world. We develop instruments that allow us to measure the composition of very small samples of extraterrestrial material. The variations we find allow us to study the processes that occurred across the solar system as it formed and evolved to its present state.
The highlights of some of our recent research include helping characterise the composition of the sun through analysing wafers of material brought back by the Genesis mission. We also showed that plutonium was originally present in the Earth’s oldest minerals, minute zircon crystals, when they formed more than 4 billion years ago. We’re now beginning to work on the samples of comets and asteroids returned by the Stardust and Hayabusa missions.
Helping You Learn
I use the latest developments in planetary science to develop new parts of the courses I teach. I also like to use new technology to provide students with the opportunity to learn – for instance I record all my lectures electronically and make voice tracks available for download. But I think that 'innovation' in teaching can give the false impression that subjects are easy. I have to put a lot of effort into understanding new things, and it is the same for students. All I can really do is provide varied opportunities for them to succeed.
As the school’s Director of Teaching I enjoy meeting students and seeing them develop the ability to understand the world around them scientifically. I know our teaching has been successful when students have such a strong interest in their subjects that they want to continue and find out more.
Studying Geology with Planetary Science
I'm informally in charge of the "...with Planetary Science" side of our undergraduate degrees. When you take Geology with Planetary Science we train you to become a professional geoscientist, but you will also have the skills to pursue developments in physics, astronomy and even aspects of the life sciences. It is all about incorporating ideas from different disciplines – being able to meld observations from different fields into an overall picture of our solar system’s prehistory, formation and evolution.
There are some important difference in the units you follow on the Geology with Planetary Science degree. In Year 1 you will do more specialised maths than most geoscientists, follow an introductory course unit in planetary science, and have tutorials with some of our research group members.
In Year 2 you do two specialised astronomy options taught by the School of Physics and Astronomy, and a unit that involves studying meteorites and moon rocks. In Year 3 there are specialised modules on the terrestrial planets and icy bodies and on the origin of the solar system.
Of course any scientist has to be able to present their work to their colleagues, and in all our programmes we help students develop their communication skills. However, informing the wider public about the latest developments in our field is a vital part of a planetary scientist's job. This has been brought home to me recently with several appearances on national radio and television. For this reason our planetary science students also do a course where you have to present planetary science topics in different ways to the general public.
To make room for the planetary science course units you would study less palaeontology and sedimentary geology, but our programmes are set up to allow you the flexibility to transfer to a straight geology programme if you decide you’d like to pursue these topics.
The great thing about adding planetary science to your geology degree is that it opens extra options for your future. The range of geological careers are always available, as of course are the standard graduate careers. However. compared to most geoscientists you will have a more highly developed appreciation of the numerical and physical sciences. Of course, a career in planetary science would require further study for a PhD. I’m pleased to say that several of our graduates have followed this route and two are currently working as researchers in the field.