Maria Schönbächler investigates how our solar system formed. Her work often reminds her of the importance of breaking out of established patterns.
How is it possible to perform atomic-level research into the formation of the solar system if it stretches over millions of kilometres?
It does sound rather paradoxical! We study meteorites that originated from asteroids. By carrying out high-precision lab analyses with mass spectrometers, we can address many questions and precisely date planetary building blocks. We can also use our data to identify the fingerprints of stardust older than our Sun. This allows us to investigate processes that occurred before, during and after planetary formation.
How did you get into this area of research?
The planets were the topic I chose for my first big project at primary school. After I completed my Master’s thesis in Earth Sciences, Professor Alex Halliday offered me the opportunity to do my doctoral thesis in the same field at ETH. There was no holding me back after that!
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned over the course of your career?
When scientists discovered the first exoplanets, many people criticised their findings and were sceptical as to whether the planets really existed. In general it amazes me how long it can take new ideas to gain acceptance in the scientific community, such as plate tectonics for example. I think this probably has a lot to do with people’s need to cling to old, established patterns.
In addition to your research and teaching, you’re also an active supporter of equal opportunities. What’s your goal?
To break out of the established patterns that have led to inequalities. The key is to become aware of the unconscious bias that can lead us to stereotype people. Awareness of how we label and classify others can help to eliminate discrimination and achieve the kind of genuine diversity that has been shown to make teams more successful.
What discovery would you most like to make?
The Moon still holds so many secrets. My dream discovery would be to map the Moon’s geology, just as geologists did on Earth between 100 and 150 years ago. That would mark a huge leap forward in our understanding of how the Earth-Moon system formed, and it would no doubt produce all sorts of surprising findings!