Netl researcher Inspires the Next Generation of Scientists Brick by Brick

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NETL Researcher Inspires the Next Generation of Scientists Brick by Brick

By Cori Nicole Wamsley

You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t grow up playing with LEGO bricks. Whether you had the red bucket of bricks in primary colors or the sets that have come into vogue today—how many of you drool when you see the kit to build the Millennium Falcon?—chances are that you have spent countless hours happily designing, building, and rebuilding.

NETL’s Circe Verba is no stranger to LEGOs. As a child, she lived in a rural town in Oregon and LEGO bricks were her foundation for learning about science. “Working with LEGO bricks helps develop critical thinking skills,” Circe said. “You can learn how to engineer and be innovative with a limited amount of bricks.” As a kid, Circe was passionate about her LEGO projects. Today, she’s coupling that enthusiasm with her passion for her work as a geologist and has developed a LEGO set that would allow the user to build a Research Geology experience, including laboratory and field work.

The idea came to Circe after she bought the Research Institute and Mars Curiosity sets that LEGO offers through their Lego Ideas campaign, which allows anyone with an account to design a set and submit it for consideration for production. She wanted to develop a set that would expose children to careers in geology, and she started out by building one of the key pieces of equipment in her lab: a scanning electron microscope. “I wanted to entice others, particularly women, to consider a math and sciences career path,” Circe said. Although recent larger efforts have been made to encourage women to enter scientific fields, those professions are still largely male dominated. “It is important for children to see men and women working together for discovery and innovation in the sciences,” she continued, so her set features both a female and a male mini-fig geologist.

Circe herself was inspired to explore science careers in middle school when she took an Earth science class. She initially wanted to be an astrophysicist, but after her first quarter at Oregon State University majoring in physics, she switched to the school’s fledgling Earth science program. After an internship at SETI Institute studying Martian slope streaks (likely dust avalanches), Circe pursued a master’s degree at Northern Arizona University concentrating on planetary geology. Concurrent with her graduate work, she worked at the U.S. Geological Survey, Astrogeology branch under a NASA-funded program called High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), which is a camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that circles Mars. If you visit her office, you can see the evidence of her Martian past.

With her background in geology and image analysis for the Martian satellite, Circe joined Cathy Summers and Bill O’Connor’s team using a scanning electron microscope to analyze cementitious materials as an ORISE intern at NETL in 2009. She completed her Ph.D. in geochemistry in 2013 from University of Oregon while working at NETL, using her cement work as part of her dissertation.

Today, Circe is a research geologist focusing on wellbore integrity in CO2 storage and unconventional systems, something that she describes as “bridging geochemistry and civil engineering.” Her current projects include the biogeochemical influence of specific microbes on sealing-compromised wellbore cement, porosity of oil-gas shale, and the integration of rare earth and metals into cement.

“Working as a geologist for a national lab has become such a rewarding career,” Circe said. “Just knowing that my work can contribute to the safety of energy-related processes and protect the environment makes all the work I’ve put in to reach this point worthwhile.” Circe also acts as a mentor for ORISE and Mickey Leland interns at the Lab, and she presents at local science-oriented events like South Albany High School Career Day, Da Vinci Days (an Oregon arts and sciences festival), and the Salmon Bowl (a competition for high school students who are well-versed in ocean knowledge). These activities have helped her bring attention to what geologists can do.

Circe wants to inspire others on a larger scale to go into the sciences and work to positively impact the world, and gender-neutral toys like LEGO bricks are a great way to inspire both boys and girls to explore. “If my Research Geology LEGO set can be part of what paves the way for future scientists, then I’m glad I took the opportunity to design it.” Circe also developed a video about her project, connecting that satisfying click of bricks snapping together with the click of understanding scientific concepts, exploring careers, and learning about the world around us.

Already, several news sources have highlighted Circe’s LEGO set: The Oregonian, East Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcast (local NPR), and Lifehacker—an article that was picked up by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls’ Facebook page (see March 11, 2015)—and many others. With so much interest in the project, Circe is hopeful that her Research Geology set will achieve the required 10,000 votes for LEGO to consider production and distribution. If you are interested in voting for Circe’s Research Geology set, visit the page, and click on the blue “support” button on the right. On the pop-up, click “create your own LEGO ID,” and fill in the form to create a free user account.

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