Meet Dr. Patrick Hill

Dr. Patrick Hill is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the @ualberta. His current research explores advanced curation of astromaterials so that we can study planetary materials for years to come without contamination from the terrestrial environment. He did his PhD at @westernuspace in Geology and Planetary Science & Exploration. During his PhD studies, he looked at impact cratering, meteorites, and the origin of the Moon. He is passionate about planetary geology and understanding planetary surface processes. Throughout his degree, he also took on numerous roles in student organizations, including as Pride Commissioner for the council advocating for LGBTQIA+ graduate students, and was an active member of his university’s outreach program.

1. How would you describe your current occupation (what and where)?

I am currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. Currently, my research examines advanced curation methods for planetary materials. In essence, I look at how we should handle and process astromaterials to keep the samples pristine and mitigate terrestrial environment contamination. To do this, I use meteorites as analogues for sample return missions, developing the best practices in preserving pristine samples and mitigating terrestrial contamination.

2. How did you become what you are? Can you describe your journey leading to your career?

Before my degree, I had the usual exposure to space exploration and planetary science, that is, I knew what an astronaut was and I was a huge fan of Sci-Fi movies, particularly Star Wars. My first scientific exploration of space came in my undergraduate at the University of British Columbia through various undergraduate courses. While most of my course work was in geological sciences applied to Earth, I tried to take courses that included extraterrestrial components. I learned about chondrites and chondrules in geochemistry and igneous petrology courses, but it was not until my fourth year that I took a true planetary science course focused on studies of the Solar System. After that I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to do graduate studies focused within this area, so started looking at supervisors that worked on planetary sciences in Canada.

My search took me to the University of Western Ontario which has an interdisciplinary program in geology and planetary sciences. To me, the most exciting part of planetary sciences has always been the breadth of the field and so my PhD research was very broad. I looked at the geology of a set of lunar meteorites, developed a unique isotope analytical technique and applied it to lunar samples, and examined impact melt production at an impact structure in Labrador. I also worked on image analysis projects, classified meteorites, and took part in numerous analogue missions to prepare for future exploration of Mars and the Moon. 

After my PhD, I started my current Postdoctoral Research fellowship at the University of Alberta. I had some experience with curation and meteorite classification, but once again, it was the challenge of learning something new and approaching a novel problem in space exploration that drew me to the position. I am particularly excited at how we prepare for future sample return missions, especially as we look to return more volatile materials from the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and comets.

3. What or who inspired you to explore space exploration the way you have?

I think early on I was inspired by the usual big names in space exploration, people like Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Sally Ride, but once I started my undergraduate, it was more the researchers that I met and interacted with who inspired me. I remember being blown away by one of my professors at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Catherine Johnson. This was at the time she was working on the MESSENGER mission looking at Mercury’s magnetic field, and while my background in geophysics is limited, the work she was doing was super exciting to me. As I continued through my graduate studies, I met more and more people at conferences, and I became even more inspired by the various research and researchers in the field. People coming from all backgrounds doing amazing research will always inspire me.

4. What would you say to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

                  I would advise anyone who is interested in space exploration or planetary sciences to keep an open mind about what they want to focus on. The field is truly interdisciplinary so there’s always room to discover what your truly passionate about and that might be a cross-section of two fields or areas. I think there is a lot of pressure early on in students’ careers to tunnel and focus on a particular area. For some that works really well – I certainly have met individuals who have known since high school that they want to get an engineering or science degree and work on x, y, and z. However, for a lot of us I think it is more of a discovery process so explore lots of options and try to expose yourself to as many opportunities and experiences as possible to find what really excites you.

5. Share a fun fact about yourself!

                  I once had to respond to a dangerous chemical spill in my lab (bromine pentafluoride – look it up; you don’t want it on you). It caused the entire building to be evacuated and there were 6 firetrucks. In the end, I had to suit up in a HazMat suit and contain the leak, which was very exciting! I managed to contain the leak, and no one was harmed in the process.

6.  Is there something you still want to do or learn that you haven’t done yet in your career?

                  During my undergraduate I learnt how to use the software Matlab, and I really enjoyed it, but didn’t pursue it fully. I would really like to learn more about coding and to get better at understanding programming. To me, artificial intelligence and computational modelling have an important and exciting role to play as we look to explore more planetary bodies in the 21stcentury.

7. Looking forward, how can we build a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ community in the Space sector?

                  During my PhD, I volunteered for my graduate student government and was elected Pride Commissioner for two years. From that experience, I found that in general the biggest hindrance to LGBTQ+ graduate students was a sense of isolation and lack of community. While I was open about my sexuality in my research program and group, that was not an option for everyone at the university. I think these kinds of experiences are commonplace within the space sector. I think when we make people feel safe and welcome in workspaces then we promote the well-being and health of individuals, which allows the individual to flourish in an organization.  

I think the more organizations commit to creating an open and inclusive space the more welcoming that environment will become. This could range from listing pronouns in emails to organizing seminars on human rights, justice, diversity, and equity in the workplace. I think in addition, most jobs in the space sector require high levels of education (post-secondary and graduate school, etc.), I think as a society we need to address the inequal access that minority communities face in entering these institutions. I talked about exposing yourself to as many opportunities as possible, but that becomes more and more difficult if you do not come from a position of privilege (educational, financial, geographical, socio-economic, etc.). Challenging these obstacles to access will make the space community thrive.


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