Micah McKinnon loves rocks. It’s a trait she seems to have passed on to her toddler, who likes to pick up rocks and give them to strangers as a way of making friends.
The rocks chart what McKinnon calls her “non-linear career path” — including what could have been a bumpy start to her career as a geophysicist. She completed her master’s degree at UBC in 2010, just as the federal government imposed a freeze on academic hiring. It was just the wrong time to be a disaster researcher, which is usually employed by the government.
But McKinnon had already begun assembling an eclectic portfolio as part of her first science gig – a consulting role for the sci-fi TV show Stargate. It was a great fit for someone who is weaned Star Trek who went on to teach a science fiction class at UC Santa Barbara as an undergraduate. Stargate opened the door to scientific consulting work on other series and films, most recently including the blockbuster disaster film Moonfall.
“You can take science and use it in all these unusual contexts that you would never think of doing for homework or work projects.”
It’s a self-described “cotton candy job” that contrasts with her work studying the harsh realities of landslides and disaster preparedness, which she finds more satisfying than making science fiction plots more realistic, though darker.
“It’s something very important, where if I do a good job, less people will die. But you’re working with people on the worst day of their lives, or trying to convince them to take action so that some future day won’t be so bad.”
MacKinnon, an assistant professor at EOAS, has taught in the department for the past 17 years, starting when she was a graduate student. Now is a much better time to be doing geophysics and disaster management than when she graduated.
“During the massive floods last winter in the Fraser Valley, I think there was at least one of my former EOAS students in every affected location,” she says. “It was very vindicating. It’s nice to know that people are going out using what they’ve learned.
“We really concentrate on objective-based learning, where we give students an understanding of the framework of what they’re trying to learn. We don’t expect everyone to be a geologist, but we want them to know enough to ask the right questions and recognize when to bring in an expert.”
Another aspect of McKinnon’s portfolio is her work at Project Espresso, a consortium working with NASA to develop instruments and techniques for future trips to asteroids, moons and other small bodies in our solar system. McKinnon brings his expertise in geophysics to the team, which is trying to figure out how to find interesting but safe landing sites for robotic spacecraft.
The Espresso project was inspired in part by the European Space Agency Fillet lander that bounced twice when it crash-landed on the surface of comet 67P before coming to rest on its side in a deep crevasse—a heartbreaking result given the cost and years of work that went into the project.
“We need to understand how landslides on asteroids are similar and different from those on Earth – apart from the obvious differences such as the lack of trees or liquid water. Gravity is very different. It is much lower and can even vary, pointing in different strengths and directions depending on the density of the asteroids. They are not nice big compacted spheres like the planets. Some asteroids are loosely packed balls of debris.
Another fun project McKinnon tackled is Mineral glass, a game where people campaign and vote for their favorite rock on Twitter. Founded by English academic Eddie Dempsey, McKinnon came up with the idea to expand the game and now manages an international team of volunteers. This September, the Mineral Cup attracted over 12,000 participants and collected more than 91,000 votes to select fluorite as the best mineral for 2022.
“Now people are playing it in museums and in classrooms,” she says. “We have people who haven’t looked at a stone from their childhood rock collection. People have all kinds of reasons to play, and what I love about it is that it’s an excuse to be joyful and curious.”
After a shaky start, could McKinnon be spreading himself too thin?
“If you see something you want to do, there’s nothing wrong with asking. The worst that can happen is someone telling you no. I have rejection goals – I want at least 100 good rejections per year. Because if I don’t, then I’m not really pushing myself.”
Her favorite rejection so far? Her application to be an astronaut.