Dr. Erin Walton, associate professor of planetary geoscience.

Board of Governors Research Chair collaborates with peers and students

October 29, 2020 | Science
Dr. Erin Walton has had a productive year as one of MacEwan University's Board of Governors Research Chairs.

The Board of Governors Research Chair is a two-year position granted to two faculty members who have demonstrated exceptional scholarly distinction. These appointments are intended to contribute to building MacEwan’s research culture, and assist faculty members in further developing their capacity to produce internationally recognized scholarly or creative activity.

In her role as research chair, Walton is collaborating with her peers and students.

Earlier this year, the associate professor of planetary geoscience began a new collaborative project with Dr. Gregory Henkes at New York's Stony Brook University. Walton and Henkes put together their NASA Solar System Workings proposal for funding to analyze samples, called impactites, from the Steen River impact structure (a crater left behind by an asteroid collision) located in northern Alberta. They're aiming to study a mineral called calcite using a NASA lab. The presence of calcite in impactites can tell scientists a lot about how the rocks of an impact structure have formed and evolved.

"So if you can imagine a rock that forms by collision of an asteroid with the Earth, the product of that is called an impactite, and they're very complex rocks to study," explains Walton. "Looking at the composition of calcite in particular can tell us about the conditions — temperature, pressure and fluid composition — at which that mineral formed."

The big question in Walton's line of research is how calcite responds when an impact structure forms in sedimentary rocks that have a lot of calcite in them.

"Calcite is a calcium carbonate mineral. If it decomposes, then it will release calcium and carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas. So we're looking at how much and when greenhouse gases are released during formation of these impact structures."

She continues that in terms of astrobiology, impact structures, such as those formed on the moon or Mars, are ubiquitous enough for an entire branch of research to look at if these impact structures can provide niches for life on Mars (or other planetary bodies).

Meanwhile, she is also using atomic force microscopy to characterize small shock-produced minerals in Martian meteorites. Walton and Dr. Steven Reddy at Curtin University in Australia submitted a proposal to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to work on some of the Martian meteorites that have been found in Antarctica.

"The reason we describe it as 'shock' is because the minerals in the meteorites experience extremely high temperatures and pressures instantaneously," says Walton. "We're looking at how minerals produced during these impact events on Mars form. It's all about understanding the temperature, pressure and time conditions that these minerals experienced during an impact event to tell us how the larger rock is formed and the history it's experienced."



Gift of time yields partnerships, papers and potential future researchers

Outgoing Board of Governors research chairs reflect on their two years in the role. 

While continuing to make contributions in her field, Walton is also mentoring more students than before and taking on more student projects, which have been a crucial component in building her research program.

Over the summer, she has mentored four students and explains that when looking for someone to mentor, she starts by recruiting students who are enthusiastic about science.

"I look for students who seem to have a really strong work ethic, like working in the lab and are very interested in the topic," says Walton.

Her current undergraduate student, Jannah Aizon (who was awarded the Mitacs Research Training Award, one of only two at MacEwan), is working on USRI-funded research looking at two meteorites from the MacEwan Meteorite Collection — samples of the asteroid 4 Vesta that were mapped by NASA's DAWN space mission.

"This is a new avenue of research for me as my background is in Martian meteorites," says Walton. "Jannah will focus on shock metamorphism in these samples which likely relates to the formation of a large impact basin on Vesta."

Meanwhile, alumni Haley Jurak and Tatianna Mijajlovic are beginning master's programs this fall that will be co-supervised by Walton through adjunct appointments at other institutions. Over the summer, Jurak continued her USRI-funded work in learning a software program for her master's, and student Tianna Groeneveld was awarded a USRA grant for a project that involves characterizing samples from the Steen River impact structure, and is a proof of concept for a larger project that will lead to building a 3D map of the crater.

This summer, Groeneveld, Jurak and Mijajlovic presented at an international conference for the first time, sharing their posters via a video recording.

"The level of undergrad research we're doing at MacEwan is above that at most other institutions that have graduate programs, and so in terms of research, the hands-on training they've received at MacEwan — operating the machines, collecting and plotting the data, interpreting and writing — they're already ahead of the curve," says Walton.  


Inspiring the next generation

"I think it’s super cool that studying rocks is something a lot of people have an interest in from a young age,” says Dr. Erin Walton, associate professor in planetary geoscience. Every year, students show her the rock collections they started as kids. 


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