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Spotlight: Sean McMahon, Chancellor’s Fellow in Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh

Tell us a fun fact about yourself

I believe I was the first contestant on the TV quiz show, University Challenge to give my subject as “astrobiology”. Also: I helped design the logo of the Aberdeen Science Centre!

Tell us about your career journey so far

I went to a fairly ordinary school in England and then studied Earth Sciences at Oxford. I moved to Aberdeen for my PhD, which explored how chemical reactions in rocks can fuel the growth of tiny organisms deep underground. Doing my own research was much more exciting than studying for a degree and I was much better at it! I also took some time out to do an internship at NASA in California. After Aberdeen, I spent a few years at Yale University in America, where I was funded by NASA to think about how rovers should search for fossils on Mars. Then I came back to Scotland, this time as a research fellow in Edinburgh. My work is now focused on the search for fossils on Mars and in Earth’s oldest rocks.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

My favourite subject was English because I loved reading and writing. Scientific research involves a lot of reading and writing so I’m glad I never lost this interest. Oddly enough, I always enjoyed reading about science in my spare time more than I enjoyed studying it at school.

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

I studied maths, physics, chemistry and geology as my final subjects at school before going to university. These have all been very useful — I use this knowledge every day. The most helpful thing about my undergraduate degree was the breadth of it — it gave me a good overview of how the Earth and other planets formed, how they have changed over time, how biological evolution was shaped by planetary forces, as well as how to think like a scientist. To be a successful research scientist, it really helps to be able to draw on lots of different disciplines — the exciting work often happens at the boundaries between them. People talk a lot about how you need maths to be a scientist, but it’s not necessarily the most essential thing. The maths I have to do these days is not significantly more complicated than the maths I was doing in my last year of school or first year of university.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

The only thing better than making a scientific discovery is helping somebody else to make one for the first time. So my absolute favourite thing is teaching advanced students who are beginning to do scientific research for themselves. I am very proud of my students and their accomplishments.

What is a normal day in your role like?

Each day begins with reviewing my emails and dealing with any urgent enquiries from colleagues or students. In the afternoon I will focus on doing experiments, analysing samples, studying my data, writing academic articles, reading, thinking, and procrastinating. All of these things are collaborative and are most interesting and effective when they involve lots of other people with different perspectives (even the procrastinating!). If I have a deadline coming up, I will have to put research aside and focus on writing a grant proposal or whatever it is. At the moment I am not teaching very much because I am very early in my academic career. In the years ahead, lecturing will take up more and more of my time.

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

1. One thing we can all do at home is explore the images from Mars rovers. It’s a privilege to be alive at a time when we can see what the surface of Mars is like from the comfort of our own homes. Something to think about: Where on Earth is most similar to the landscapes in these images from Mars? How would the different gravity on Mars affect the landscape?

2. Not easy at home, but a fun thing to do is to make “chemical gardens” using simple chemical reactions. Look at the structures that form. Things like these have been found in very ancient rocks (about four billion years) and we don’t know if they are fossil organisms or chemical gardens. It’s surprisingly hard to tell the difference between the remains of a living thing and the products of a simple chemical reaction.

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The UK-wide STEM Ambassador programme is managed by STEM Learning Limited, which operates the National STEM Learning Network, alongside other projects supporting STEM education. To find out more please go to the STEM Learning website