A&S grad student helping build a better understanding of Mars, thanks to D.H. Gorman Explorers Fund Graduate Scholarship

August 25, 2020 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

A lot of amazing things had to fall into place before Megan Swing could study a Martian meteorite at the Royal Ontario Museum.

First, an asteroid had to collide with the surface of Mars. That collision had to wield enough force that it knocked pieces of the planet’s crust loose and launched them into space. Those pieces had to then travel at least 55 million kilometres to land on Earth in the desert somewhere near Morocco.

The final piece of the puzzle was Swing developing a fascination with meteorites as an undergraduate student and deciding to pursue her master’s degree in Earth sciences at U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science.

“It is really exciting because a meteorite can tell us a lot about how Mars formed, what kind of minerals the planet is made of and how that's evolved over time, as well as how the actual rock itself got here,” says Swing, who is studying how magma and magmatic processes have changed on the red planet throughout its history. “It’s so exciting to see that such a small rock can tell us so much.”

Her studies are supported by the 2019/20 D.H. Gorman Explorers Fund Graduate Scholarship. Named in honour of Professor Donald “Digger” Gorman, who taught in Department of Earth Sciences  in the Faculty of Arts & Science for 40 years before he passed away in April 2020, the scholarship provides Swing with much-needed support and security — especially during the pandemic. The scholarship has also confirmed for her she’s on the right track.

“I've worked hard and in a way this scholarship is my reward for keeping with that work, for trying my best and being passionate about my research. That recognition is really humbling and exciting and keeps me pushing forward.”

As an undergrad at McMaster University, her career had been on a different trajectory; Earth’s geology and minerals were her main focus. A chance presentation there by Kim Tait, her current supervisor at the ROM and an associate professor in the Faculty’s Department of Earth Sciences, introduced her to all that could be learned from meteorites. Swing was hooked.

At the ROM, she’s studying a sample named NWA 10961, one of just over 270 Martian meteorites ever found on Earth; the NWA stands for Northwest Africa, where it was found. About the size of a grapefruit and found in Morocco in 2016, it was relatively new to the ROM collection and not well-analyzed when Swing arrived.

“I’m trying to learn what the source magma was made of, how it changed and how it formed these rocks,” Swing says. “This knowledge helps build a bigger story as to what is going on and what is happening there. My work is a small part of a much larger global puzzle.

“My piece might be small, but it will help us understand the universe on a much larger scale when we put it all together. That's absolutely what it takes — a global effort. These meteorites are so vast and complicated, and we have so few of them here on Earth. Every piece ends up being important.”

At the ROM and U of T, Swing works with a strong network of technicians and other experts, including undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs. She has access to other samples in the ROM’s extensive meteorite collection as well.

“Megan works hard at her coursework and lab work. She’s tackled her master’s degree project with a lot of energy and curiosity,” says Tait. “Of course, COVID-19 has changed our working environments and temporarily shifted our work to home and out of the lab, but she has worked diligently on her project and is now back at the ROM collecting data again, which is such great news.”

After finishing her master’s degree, Swing plans to pursue her PhD at U of T and possibly become a professor — just like the namesake of the scholarship supporting her.

“Continuing to share ideas, being a good member of this community and helping each other out is really important, and Professor Gorman  embodied that,” Swing says. “It's something to look up to.”

Swing is one of four talented students to receive the 2019/20 D.H. Gorman Explorers Fund Graduate Scholarship. Others include:

  • Krystal Nason, a master’s student in Earth sciences;
  • Bennett Wilson, a master’s student in Earth sciences; and
  • Sophia Zamaria, a PhD student who earned her honours bachelor of science in 2017 in physical and environmental geography, Earth and environmental systems science; and her master’s degree in Earth sciences in 2019, both from U of T.