John James Gumbley
Role: PhD student in the Earth Science and Engineering Department at Imperial College London
Subject area: Organic preservation in Jezero Crater site of the Perseverance Rover mission.
Nationality: Dual Australian and British
I spent 40 years as a journalist working mainly for the BBC and Sky News but managed, courtesy of the wonderful Open University, to keep up my science studies during my years in TV and while raising a family. I was fortunate during my working life to meet many working scientists including several Nobel Prize winners which boosted my motivation for learning new things. When I retired in 2015, I moved into fulltime education.
I left school in 1970 and studied History and Political Science at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
In the late 1980’s I began a science degree with the Open University studying mainly Chemistry and Biochemistry. Fast forward to 2015 and, upon retirement, I started another degree this time in Maths, Geology and Physics. University College London offered a course in Planetary Science that conveniently wrapped all my previous science studies into a master’s degree. I am now working on a PhD at Imperial College London.
Detail about John
I’m studying rocks in the Ladakh region of India, part of the Tibetan plateau, as we believe in the past the surface of Mars was similar. The sites are 3-5000 metres in altitude, cold, the air is thin and it seldom rains. We want to know how organic molecules – the stuff that makes all living things – are preserved in these harsh environments. Which type of rocks are best able to capture and protect biosignatures? We can then use the answer we find here on Earth to ask the rover missions on Mars to sample the same type of rocks and maybe, just maybe, they might contain signatures of ancient life.
Easy one. I was 16 years old when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. The 60’s was a crazy time for scientific advances and to sit in front of a TV and watch Armstrong and Aldrin step onto the Moon could not fail to inspire. Amazingly, many years later I met Buzz Aldrin and a more courteous and generous chap you’ll never meet.
Who is your STEM hero?
Sir Howard Florey, Australian pharmacologist and pathologist, who made penicillin into a useful and effective drug. Fleming discovered the penicillin producing bacteria but thought it had no practical use. A decade later and on the eve of World War Two, Florey took another look and decided Fleming was wrong. How many millions of lives have been saved by that decision? As well as a brilliant scientist, Florey also had the drive to push against the sceptics and initiate a massive effort by the pharmaceutical industry to produce the wonder drug.
Most significant discovery/invention?
James Clerk Maxwell’s Theory of Electromagnetism. He was a Scottish physicist but as with all great scientists he had very broad interests which allowed him to ask big questions and think outside the box. His equations don’t have the apparent simplicity of E = mc2 but he had a huge influence on Einstein.
Career options after study
Degrees in science open up a massive range of career opportunities. For those who don’t want to stay in academia your science degree will impress potential employers in many fields. They want people who stick to a task and work round problems in a methodical manner. Be that as a field geologist working for a mining company or as a financial analyst, a teacher or the health service.
Despite years of studying physics and biology I still can’t quite get a cricket or golf ball to go exactly where I want it to go but I’m still trying. Oh and I once got to hold a piece of Mars in my hand. I was doing a story at the Natural History Museum on meteors, and they have a Martian meteorite on display. The Museum curator let me hold it --- briefly. They are literally worth more than diamonds so good luck finding one.