In September 2015 I completed my internship at the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center of Marseille (CINaM), a unit of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). The CINaM is located on the university campus of Luminy, in the Calanques of Marseille. This internship enabled me to receive a first working experience is the research sector, along with learning how to use specific equipment.
I spent most of the time in the geology department working with Dr. Olivier Grauby on several different matters. He is a mineralogist with focus on clay minerals but also bio-minerals. I was able to work on X-ray diffraction, in order to determine the characteristics of a specific mineral. The beams emitted by the machine are deflected by the crystalline materials, thus leaving a diffraction pattern that tells us about its orientation and therefore allows us to determine what type of structure the crystal is composed of. It is then possible to derive the nature of the crystals and find out what the material is made up of.
Though X-ray diffraction is an efficient method to assert mineral composition of a material, there are many things than cannot be done using this type of device. I had the opportunity to use Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEM) in order to observe the outer structure of different materials. These are the kind of microscopic images that provide amazing pictures of how minerals are built. I could also use the Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM), which allows a greater resolution down to very fine details and is even capable of seeing atoms themselves. I also witnessed the making a TEM sample, which is also an essential tool in the life of a geologist. The making of, is a very meticulous process and is the results of several steps. A TEM sample has to undergo an observation under the SEM, where we determine what part needs to be examined. After that, it is taken to a Focused Ion Beam (FIB), which basically allows us to cut out microscopic parts by bombarding them with particles. Lastly, I participated in the creation of a thin section, a fascinating process that only a handful of professionals are responsible for. France for instance, counts less than 60 thin sections makers throughout the country!
Overall, it was a very helpful internship that helped me realize what life in research really entails and what a geologist really does, since it is a quite important subject in the Earth and Environmental Sciences major. The CINaM has people doing amazing research, down from attempting to make fuel that does not leave any trace for military airplanes to creating armor replicating the consistency of bio-minerals for the military as well!