Postdoc Spotlight: Kelsey Prissel puts the pressure on Martian minerals

Postdoc Kelsey Prissel carefully builds the multi-anvil press assembly.
Postdoc Kelsey Prissel carefully builds the multi-anvil press assembly.
Wednesday, September 01, 2021 

Kelsey Prissel is an experimental petrologist who recently finished up a postdoc with Carnegie’s Yingwei Fei. Her work focuses on determining how elements behave in magmatic systems. In this postdoc spotlight, she talks about the challenges in her field, her recent work putting the pressure on Martian minerals, and what’s next for her after Carnegie. 

First, can you introduce yourself? What do you do at the Carnegie Institution for Science Earth and Planets Laboratory? 

I'm Kelsey Prissel (pronounced like prize), and I have been at EPL for a year working with Yingwei Fei. My broad research interests are experimental geochemistry, petrology, and planetary science. I went to Brown University for my undergraduate degree, and I got my PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

What are the larger implications of your work?

Most of my projects involve conducting experiments in order to determine how elements or isotopes behave in magmatic systems. These studies have implications for the timescales of volcanic eruptions and the formation and evolution of planets. 

By studying geochemistry in a controlled environment, we can decipher the formation conditions of rocks we observe on the surface of a planet, trace back to the chemistry of its interior, and characterize the evolution of that composition through time.

It's somewhat of a forensic science, kind of like being handed a cookie and then asked to write down its recipe. 

First, you need to identify the ingredients (how much of each? what order to combine them in?), and once you have a dough, you need to know at what temperature and for how long to bake it. Then there are all the tiny details (do you sift the flour? do you spray the cookie sheet or line it with parchment paper?). It's like writing a planetary recipe book.

Can you summarize your recent work, project, or specific publication? 

For the last few months, I have been working to determine the pressure stability of the mineral feiite recently discovered in a Martian meteorite (and named after Carengie’s Yingwei Fei).

Because the mineral is relatively new, there are a lot of unknowns with respect to its formation conditions, chemistry, and structure. We have successfully synthesized feiite in the lab (a first!) and have determined the minimum pressure you need to make it. From this stability limit, we can place constraints on the pressure history of the meteorite that the mineral was discovered in.

Kelsey Prissel places her assembly into the multianvil press.

What is the most challenging thing about your work? 

Experiments fail, but as an experimentalist, you understand that’s inevitable and you can still learn from the process.

I think the hardest obstacle for experiments, in general, is scaling up from what we do in the lab in order to apply our results to nature. We study mini-systems in the lab, and if everything were in equilibrium, the geochemical behavior on a planetary scale would be the same. However, nature is a dynamic system. There are kinetics and additional variables to consider, maybe some we have yet to identify.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

Fortunately, my high school offered geology classes. I really enjoyed geology and chemistry, so coming into college I knew I wanted to pursue "geochemistry". I remember printing off the geology course offering list before I arrived at Brown and highlighting every class that had geochemistry in the title (which, now that I think about it, I took most of them!).

I realized I liked the high-temperature/petrology aspect of geoscience best when I was taking a course in limnology; my favorite part of the course was when we studied the evaporation of a lake, the sequence of minerals that precipitate, and how the chemistry of the lake and its deposits evolve during the evaporation process. (Petrology being similar, but instead with magma crystallizing.)

Then, the summer before my senior year I did an undergraduate internship at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and that solidified my interest in planetary science. 

How has your background influenced your research?

Having grown up participating in sports and other group activities, I highly value teamwork. Science relies heavily on communication and interpersonal relationships. In the lab, I try to help those around me achieve their goals in any way I can. Philosophically, I think there is more to be learned through collaboration than isolation. 

Has anything else affected your thinking as a scientist?

I am a first-generation college student, so the entire world of academia was a bit of a mystery to me. It's hard to remember that feeling once you've been immersed in academia for years, and I think it is important to step outside of your bubble and communicate with the public about science and science careers. Because the educational experiences I had before college ultimately helped shape my career, I enjoy K-12 outreach the most.

When you're not actively researching, do you have any hobbies?

Of course! Lately, most of my time has been spent with my son, my husband, and our dog. We like to go for walks outdoors and have tried to do as many touristy D.C. things as possible during the pandemic. In my free time I also enjoy playing softball, baking treats, and going to the gym. 

Why did you choose the Earth and Planets Laboratory? 

Doing a postdoc at EPL has been a dream of mine, and I am so grateful to be here.

Fei is a leading expert in multi-anvil techniques and the opportunity to learn from him has been a highlight of my career. The history of my field is fundamentally tied to Carnegie, and it has been a humbling experience to share a piece of it. While monitoring my experiments, I would often page through decades of lab notebooks, looking at the past runs that ultimately became published works I have read from now well-established scientists. Though we haven't been able to interact in person extensively, I have learned so much from all of my colleagues at EPL in even the shortest encounters.

What's next for you? 

I'm heading to Houston, TX to begin my position as a Research Scientist with Jacobs at NASA Johnson Space Center. Though I am sad to leave Carnegie having only been here during the pandemic (and will miss things like MudCup, Gary's famous fall picnic, and the holiday party!), I am excited that I get to continue pursuing my research interests and work alongside the planetary scientists at NASA.

Do you remember the first time you thought you'd be a scientist?

I have a distinct memory of a mineral identification exercise I did in fourth grade. I remember the different stations the teachers set up, the scratch plates, streak tests, taste tests.

At the time, I didn't know I would become a geoscientist, but I like to think that my recollection of that project, and the thinking process behind it, must have been an early indication that this science in particular was well-suited for me. 

What's something about you that people might not know?

I played D1 softball at Brown for all four years of college. I'm also a percussionist—my favorite instrument to play is the marimba. 

Do you have any advice for current graduate students? 

Seek advice from multiple mentors. Many of the topics you will need advice on are subjective in nature, and everyone's experience is unique. Having discussions with more than one person allows you to find common threads of guidance, as well as identify where perspectives diverge. In doing so, you'll be able to craft informed decisions that are best for you.