Meet GeoSci student, Emma Stoutenburg

April 24, 2023

Emma Stoutenburg was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. She is a second-year UChicago GeoSci PhD student, with a bachelor’s in Earth Science and a specialization in Geophysics from Ohio State University. Emma works in the field of mineral physics, where she studies the physical properties of the minerals within the deep interiors of planets.  

We interviewed her about her experiences at UChicago.

Why did you choose the University of Chicago?
I chose the University of Chicago for many reasons! My top priority when choosing where to go was the advisor, both the quality of their research group/lab and their personability. Not only is my advisor an expert in our field; he is also well-connected in the deep Earth research community. His former students have had research experience in Japan, Germany, and France, so I knew that by choosing UChicago I could benefit not only from my advisor’s expertise and mentorship but I may also have the opportunity to collaborate internationally and broaden my horizons this way. A welcoming, collaborative environment was also a priority for me. By choosing UChicago, I knew I’d be in a friendly research group, in a friendly department, in a good community/neighborhood.

Please describe something you are proud of accomplishing at UChicago.
I’m proud of developing my research skills with two very different projects which utilize two different mineral physics methods. The first project focused on a minor mineral in the Earth’s mantle, FeAlO3, using experimental methods, specifically x-ray diffraction in the laser-heated diamond anvil cell. I’ve found FeAlO3’s equation of state and phase diagram, information that is of vital importance to understanding Earth’s mantle minerals and dynamics.

The second project has employed ab initio molecular dynamics simulations to study liquid iron hydrogen alloys. Iron hydrogen alloys are relevant for planets’ cores, which are primarily iron with some dilution by light elements, like hydrogen. I’m studying Fe-H compositions very rich in H to determine how much hydrogen can be present in a planet’s core. With ab initio molecular dynamics, we find the properties of minerals at extreme pressure and temperature conditions computationally using first principles; since hydrogen is volatile, it’s challenging to probe experimentally, and molecular dynamics simulations are a solution to the problems hydrogen-rich experiments entail. I have established a collaboration in France to learn to perform and interpret these simulations.

These two mineral physics skillsets, the experimental and the computational, are different but complimentary, and I’m proud of gaining experience in both over my first two years at UChicago. I’m planning on integrating both methods for my PhD project.

What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?
Since my first year, I’ve been on the board of Splash UChicago, and this is something I love to do! At Splash, we put on multiple programs a year where UChicago students design and teach advanced, niche classes for local high schoolers. I love seeing the benefits our programs bring to both the UChicago teachers and their students. Teachers get to up their mentorship skills and refine their instruction style, while high schoolers get to discover new perspectives and passions (for free!).

What are your plans post-UChicago?
I plan to pursue a postdoc, and ultimately, I hope to have a job either in industry (e.g., tech or materials science) or as a scientist at a national lab. In the next few years of my PhD, I plan to take advantage of the various career fairs, career seminars, and intern/externship opportunities that the PSD provides to get a clearer idea of what kind of jobs would be a good fit for me.

What support have you received at the UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?
I’ve received support from the UChicago-CNRS Partnership to research in France at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris with a collaborator employed by the CNRS (CNRS, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, the French national research organization). I’ve been able to work for 5 weeks in Paris already, and I have funding to work ~10 weeks per year in Paris for the rest of my PhD. The opportunity to work with my collaborator in person through UChicago funding is extremely valuable, and I’m really grateful.

If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?
I’d tell them to reach out to students in their prospective field/program to ask their experience, and to use the resources of UChicago Grad and the PSD to see what kind of support is offered to grad students here.  

How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?
I find that outreach in surrounding UChicago Southside communities gives one perspective on the variety of experiences in our city and the value of equal opportunity. Diversity, be it racial, economic, gender, etc., is vitally important to develop in the academic environment. Supporting diversity through inclusive outreach is something to prioritize, so that hopefully, the sciences and academia become more diverse and equitable. Thankfully, I think the grad students in my department and broadly at UChicago share this sentiment, and there exist a myriad of opportunities to get out into the community and to try to make a difference.

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