Maria Genzer of the Finnish Meteorological Institute (Finland) reports on how Europlanet’s Expert Exchange Programme is supporting skill-sharing within the planetary community.
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In any area of science, collaboration and personal connections are key to transferring knowledge and building capacity for the future. Through a series of Expert Exchange programmes dating back more than a decade, Europlanet has supported the mobilisation of the planetary community to share expertise and best practices. In the current programme, researchers or industrial partners can apply to the Europlanet 2024 Research Infrastructure for funding to make a short visit of up to one week to another institution. At a project level, the main objectives are to improve the facilities and services offered to the scientific community by Europlanet, and provide training for potential users of the research infrastructure. At a community level, the Europlanet Expert Exchanges support early career researchers in developing professional skills, and provide opportunities to widen participation from under-represented countries and from countries outside Europe.
After a slow start due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Expert Exchange programme has now ramped up its pace. So far, we have approved more than 10 applications involving over 10 different institutes or laboratories.
Four visits have already taken place and submitted their reports, and the rest of the approved visits are scheduled for the summer or early autumn of 2022. The first three completed visits, involving researchers from the CNRS Centre for Molecular Biophysics in Orléans, France, the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, UK, and the University of Bologna, Italy, have all been linked. Looking at the reports submitted together, we can see an excellent practical example of how the Expert Exchange programme can achieve its objectives of sharing knowledge and developing skills in the community.
The three visits were instigated by the acquisition of a WITec Alpha 300 Raman microscope by a team led by Prof Barbara Cavalazzi at the University of Bologna. Raman spectroscopy is a versatile technique used to detect and identify organic molecules and minerals in many fields of research, from biology to Earth sciences. The technique is based on detecting changes to the wavelength of light from a laser when it interacts with the chemical bonds within a target material. Raman spectroscopy is a key instrument for astrobiological studies of ancient and active traces of life on Earth, and for the detection of possible traces of life on Mars. Advances in miniaturisation of components and the development of Raman microscopy imaging has led to its use in multiple space exploration missions, including NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is equipped with two Raman spectrometers (SuperCam and SHERLOC).
Dr Frédéric Foucher has been in charge of a WITec system at the CNRS Centre for Molecular Biophysics since January 2009. As one of the first researchers in Europe to use the instrument, he is now recognised as a specialist and has published several articles and book chapters on the subject during the last decade. In June last year, Barbara invited Frédéric to visit Bologna through the Europlanet Expert Exchange programme to support development of the Bologna lab facility and to provide training on theoretical and practical aspects of Raman microscopy, imaging and data processing.
The actual visit to the University of Bologna took place over five days in November 2021. Frédéric ran a fully-subscribed course for 20 researchers, students and technicians. Feedback from participants in the workshop was very positive, and the expert exchange reinforced links between the exobiology group in Orléans and the team in Bologna. Collaborations will continue in the future, and Frédéric and Barbara report that it is probable that some of the students that took part in the training will visit Frédéric’s lab in Orléans in the framework of their Master’s or PhD thesis. Among the participants on the course were Dr Keyron Hickman- Lewis, an early career postdoctoral researcher at the NHM in London, and Victor Amir Cardoso Dorneles, a doctoral candidate at the University of Bologna. Keyron was attending the course as part of the second Expert Exchange supported by Europlanet (see the panel on previous page). Victor followed up with the third visit in April 2022 to the NHM, where he received practical training in various analytical techniques, including X-ray micro-computed tomography (micro- CT), Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), scanning thin sections under an optical microscope, and scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS).
Victor is studying modern stromatolites (layered deposits formed by photosynthetic micro-organisms) gathered in extreme environments in the East African Rift system. The characterisation of samples carried out during his exchange visit to the NHM, and the possible identification of related biosignatures via the non-invasive and non-destructive analytical approaches he learned, will help him complete his PhD thesis on ‘Biosignatures of Extreme Environments as Targets of Astrobiological Exploration’ and feed into more general preparations by the planetary community for future Mars sample return missions.
At the moment, the call for applications for the Expert Exchange Programme is permanently open, meaning that we welcome applications at any time without strict application periods or deadlines. We are looking forward to supporting more applications in the following months. For more information, see the Europlanet website or contact us.
Travel, Training and Teaching
Keyron Hickman-Lewis of the NHM, London (UK), reports on his experience of participating in a Europlanet Expert Exchange visit.
Taking part in a training course on high-resolution Raman microspectroscopy with Dr Frédéric Foucher (also visiting Bologna through the Expert Exchange Programme) provided me with important insights into instrumentation and techniques unavailable at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. The course was an excellent refresher in using Raman systems, and allowed me to familiarise myself with the WiTEC Raman system at Bologna and techniques for data treatment. Following the course, I performed several initial analyses of microbialite samples. I hope to make further use of the Raman instrument at Bologna in the future, through a follow-up Expert Exchange visit, since it will complement the analysis techniques I use at my home institution.
My exchange visit also contributed to a major ongoing collaborative project for understanding the geobiological and astrobiological potentials of fossil-bearing stromatolites from the East African Rift system. These microbial structures are known to have developed in extreme environments that may resemble Mars during its early history, when water may have been abundant on its surface. As such, these stromatolites are prime targets for biosignature detection and astrobiology. I assisted the team at the University of Bologna in the selection and preparation of specific samples for high-resolution analyses. In particular, I advised on the preparation of samples for micro-CT 3D study at the NHM, as I have a lot of experience in this technique. We studied and selected potentially interesting fragments of stromatolites with appropriate dimensions for micro-CT scanning, using photography and stereo microscopy, and acquired comprehensive pre-analytical imaging of the corresponding thin sections using optical microscopy. The samples are particularly fragile, by virtue of their void-filled carbonate composition, so they needed to be prepared on site in Bologna and carefully carried back to London as hand-luggage. I subsequently spent several weeks making geochemical and morphological studies of the samples with our analytical facilities at the NHM.
During the exchange, I also contributed to the project supervision of a doctoral candidate, Victor Amir Cardoso Dorneles, with whom I will work closely (as co-supervisor) throughout the course of his thesis. We discussed his project direction, the availability and use of samples in both my own collections and those at the University of Bologna, and possibilities for fieldwork and sample acquisition throughout 2022. This experience of student supervision has been invaluable, given my own status as an early career researcher. Victor has now visited the NHM in London through another Europlanet Expert Exchange to be trained on various techniques using the samples that we prepared together.
Overall, my exchange visit was very successful from a scientific perspective and a valuable opportunity to develop professional skills and relationships.