Valerie Finlayson

Val Finlayson

Co-Lead Scientist
Postdoctoral Associate
University of Maryland

Tell us about your work/research. What kinds of things do you do?

My research interests focus on the geochemistry of igneous and mantle rocks, with a specialization in high-temperature isotope geochemistry. Chemical and isotopic "fingerprints" of lavas produced when parts of the mantle melt can carry some information about the mantle itself. I'm interested in the stories that information can tell us: Can we trace these fingerprints back in time? How do they change, or stay the same? How might they have formed, and what do they tell us about how Earth's mantle works? How old are different kinds of mantle sampled by these melts? Some of the best lavas to answer these questions come from "hotspots" that generate chains of volcanoes, like at Hawaiʻi or Galápagos, and many of these volcanoes are deep underwater. While I extract most of this information in the lab, going out to sea to collect samples from volcanoes and chains we haven't yet fingerprinted add more pieces to the puzzle we're trying to solve about how the Earth works, and how it formed, evolved, and became the life-hosting, dynamic planet we're part of.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

Geology, and specifically geochemistry, was a field I came to later on in my undergraduate studies, but rocks and the planet and our place within the Universe have been lifelong interests. When I was very young, I had a fascination with the work Jacques Cousteau had done, but never imagined that oceanic exploration was something I would ultimately have the fortune to be part of! As an undergraduate, the inflection point that set me down a geology career path was an opportunity to explore Death Valley (California). This was a place I'd always been interested in visiting, and I went with a crew of science students, mostly in geology, and a couple of geology professors. I returned from that trip coming back with so many questions and knowing that this was a discipline I could spend lifetimes on. That notion hasn't changed over a decade later.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

This is a hard question to answer. There have been so many people over the years who have been positive influences and who have encouraged me to pursue the education, the opportunities that have come up, research questions, and the connections throughout the community to chase down a better understanding of this planet.

What element of your work/study do you think is the most fascinating?

Honestly, every aspect has been fascinating. The history of the research and how our current understanding (and methods) were developed, the technology and chemical principles we use for "routine" geochemical and isotopic methods, the push to innovate to newer methods, and novel "non-traditional" isotope systems, the ever-evolving mass spectrometry technology. In more recent years, it's exciting to see the increasing access to huge amounts of geochemical data that can permit bigger stories to be told, and more questions to be tackled than were previously possible.

What other jobs led you to your current career?

Most of my career has been purely academic. As an undergraduate, I worked as a USDA Forest Service intern for a while, as well as an undergraduate teaching and research assistant. As a graduate student, I have worked as both a teaching and research assistant for a mixture of intro and upper-level classes, where I found I hugely enjoy teaching (and don't get to do it enough), but that I'm also quite the "lab rat". It was during this period when I first went to sea and worked as a member of a science crew and had a blast. Since then I've been on several more expeditions and overall have participated in a mixture of dredge-based geological and multidisciplinary ROV-based expeditions. That has included a variety of roles, including onboard sample processing, data collections, and archival; some dive narration and plan management; planning mapping routes, and some data processing. Since earning my Ph.D., I've worked as a postdoc and continue to develop my lab skills, writing, and identifying research questions that I hope will benefit the broader community. It's in the development of science questions and ways to address them that I hope to contribute to strategic planning for fieldwork and expeditions to keep the science moving forward.

What are your degrees and certifications?

Bachelor of Science in Geological Sciences; Michigan State University 2009

Masters of Science in Geological Sciences; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 2011

Doctor of Philosophy in Geology and Geophysics; University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa 2017

What are your hobbies?

I rotate through a few things! Photography and painting, building customized computer peripherals, tinkering, riding bikes, and playing a variety of musical genres (although a few years lapsed at the moment!). I also enjoy experimenting with gluten-free baking, although it doesn't always succeed.

What advice would you give someone who is interested in a career like yours?

If you're interested in geochemistry, it's a great idea to see if you can get some experience in a lab that does that kind of work. While chemistry itself follows a set of rules, interpreting the data involves different skills and strategies. This is where perspectives and creativity can be really helpful to build on the fundamental principles and background of what these numbers mean, once you've gotten a handle on that. And at first, you have to learn how to start working with the data you turned those rocks into - totally normal! And those perspectives often come from other things - art, programming, other fields of study, who you are as a person, can all bring a different way of looking at data and understanding the story it's telling.

Ask questions, no matter how "stupid" they might seem. They're not. Don't be afraid to say that you don't know the answer to something, or acknowledge your weaknesses alongside your strengths. To echo a couple of mentors, choose your collaborators carefully - and ideally folks who have strengths where you don't, and vice versa. That will help you continue to grow and learn.

How did you get involved with the Nautilus Exploration Program? How did you get on the ship?

I was recommended by some peers and recruited to help bring geology expertise to the OET team for this expedition.


Val participated in the following Ocean Exploration Trust expeditions: