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A disaster researcher’s career path is lined with rocks



  • Mika McKinnon
  • MSc 2010

Mika 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.

Rocks line what McKinnon calls her “nonlinear career path”—including what could have been a bumpy beginning to her career as a geophysicist. She completed her MSc at UBC in 2010, just as the federal government imposed a hiring freeze on scientists. It was exactly the wrong time to be a disaster researcher, who are typically employed by government.

But McKinnon had already begun assembling an eclectic portfolio as part of her first science side hustle—a role as a consultant for the science fiction TV show Stargate. It was a great fit for someone weaned on Star Trek who went on to teach a science of science fiction class at UC Santa Barbara as an undergrad. Stargate opened the door  to science consulting work on other series and movies, most recently including the blockbuster disaster flick Moonfall.

“You get to take science and use it in all of these unusual contexts that you’d never think about doing for homework assignments or work projects.”

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It’s a self-described “cotton candy job” that counterbalances her work studying the harsh realities of landslides and disaster preparedness, which she finds more fulfilling than making science fiction plots more realistic, albeit grimmer.

“It’s something very important where if I do a good job, fewer people will die. But you’re working with people on the very worst day of their lives, or you’re trying to convince them to take action so that some future day won’t be as bad.”

McKinnon, an adjunct professor with EOAS, has been teaching in the department for the past 17 years, beginning when she was a graduate student. It’s a much better time to be involved in geophysics and disaster management than when she graduated.

“During last winter’s massive floods in the Fraser Valley, I think every impacted site had at least one of my former EOAS students at it,” she says. “That was very vindicating. It’s nice to know that people are going out using what they 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’re not expecting everyone to be a geoscientist but we want them to know enough to be able to ask the right questions and to recognize when they need to bring in an expert.”

Another facet of McKinnon’s portfolio is her work in Project Espresso, a consortium working with NASA to develop tools and techniques for future travel to asteroids, moons and other small bodies in our solar system. McKinnon brings her geophysics expertise to the team trying to figure out how to find interesting yet safe places to for robotic spacecraft to land.

Project Espresso was inspired in part by the European Space Agency’s Philae lander that bounced twice when it crash-landed on the surface of comet 67P before coming to rest on its side in a deep crack—a heartbreaking result given the expense and years of work that went into the project.

“We have to understand how landslides on asteroids are similar and different than those on Earth—besides the obvious differences like there are no trees or liquid water. Gravity is very different. It’s a lot lower and can even be variable, pointing in different strengths and directions depending on the density of the asteroids. They’re not nice big compacted spheres like planets are. Some asteroids are loosely packed balls of rubble.”

Another fun project McKinnon has taken on is the Mineral Cup, a game where people campaign and vote for their favourite rock on Twitter. Founded by English academic Eddie Dempsey, McKinnon came up with an idea to expand the game and now manages an international team of volunteers. This September’s Mineral Cup attracted over 12,000 participants and garnered 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 rock since their childhood rock collection. People have all kinds of reasons for playing, and what I love about it is it’s an excuse to be joyous and curious.”

After a rocky start, could McKinnon be spreading herself a bit too thin?

“If you see something you want to do, there’s no harm in asking. The very worst that happens is somebody tells you no. I have rejection goals—I want at least 100 good rejections a year. Because if I don’t, then I’m not really pushing myself.”

Her favourite rejection so far? Her application to be an astronaut.

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One Great Shot: Bucktoothed Bumpheads on the Great Barrier Reef – Hakai Magazine



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When I set out to photograph bumphead parrotfish on a three-week dive trip to the northern reaches of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the winter of 2021, I had a specific goal in mind: I wanted to see a school of these strange animals swimming together.

There are so many weird and wonderful ocean-dwelling creatures, but this particular parrotfish species stands alone with its bizarre overbite, formidable size, prominent forehead, and tendency to travel in large groups. Bumpheads can grow to more than a meter long and about 46 kilograms—about the same weight as the average adult chimpanzee—making them the largest parrotfish and one of the world’s biggest reef fish. They also play an important role in the ecosystem: with their beaklike teeth, they munch algae off corals. In the process, they swallow other reef material and excrete it as sand.

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One morning, on a pre-sunrise dive, I descended toward a reef where other divers had spotted bumpheads, hoping for my chance. Luck was on my side—it wasn’t long before I found a cluster of about 40 individuals huddled near the coral. The fish appeared to be completely still above a small bommie (reef) and were packed so tightly that their bodies were touching one another. When I edged closer, the parrotfish squeezed together even more, monitoring my every move. Reef fish are notoriously skittish, but this school stayed put while I took a picture.

The underwater world is full of fascinating species. Photographing them in their habitat is both challenging and rewarding, and I love sharing these moments with others.

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Josh Blank is an underwater photographer based on the east coast of Australia. With a strong focus on larger marine species, Blank aims to use his imagery to inspire others to learn more about our blue planet and to seek out similar wildlife experiences themselves. He believes impactful ocean imagery is a valuable tool that can invoke change and ultimately achieve a better, more sustainable future.

Cite this Article:

Cite this Article:
Josh Blank “One Great Shot: Bucktoothed Bumpheads on the Great Barrier Reef,” Hakai Magazine, Dec 9, 2022, accessed December 9th, 2022,

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New branch on tree of life includes ‘lions of the microbial world’



There’s a new branch on the tree of life and it’s made up of predators that nibble their prey to death.

These microbial predators fall into two groups, one of which researchers have dubbed “nibblerids” because they, well, nibble chunks off their prey using tooth-like structures. The other group, nebulids, eat their prey whole. And both comprise a new ancient branch on the tree of life called “Provora,” according to a paper published today in Nature.

Microbial lions

Like lions, cheetahs, and more familiar predators, these microbes are numerically rare but important to the ecosystem, says senior author Dr. Patrick Keeling, professor in the UBC department of botany. “Imagine if you were an alien and sampled the Serengeti: you would get a lot of plants and maybe a gazelle, but no lions. But lions do matter, even if they are rare. These are lions of the microbial world.”

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Using water samples from marine habitats around the world, including the coral reefs of Curaçao, sediment from the Black and Red seas, and water from the northeast Pacific and Arctic oceans, the researchers discovered new microbes. “I noticed that in some water samples there were tiny organisms with two flagella, or tails, that convulsively spun in place or swam very quickly. Thus began my hunt for these microbes,” said first author Dr. Denis Tikhonenkov, senior researcher at the Institute for Biology of Inland Waters of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Tikhonenkov, a long-time collaborator of the UBC co-authors, noticed that in samples where these microbes were present, almost all others disappeared after one to two days. They were being eaten. Dr. Tikhonenkov fed the voracious predators with pre-grown peaceful protozoa, cultivating the organisms in order to study their DNA.

“In the taxonomy of living organisms, we often use the gene ’18S rRNA’ to describe genetic difference. For example, humans differ from guinea pigs in this gene by only six nucleotides. We were surprised to find that these predatory microbes differ by 170 to 180 nucleotides in the 18S rRNA gene from every other living thing on Earth. It became clear that we had discovered something completely new and amazing,” Dr. Tikhonenkov said.

New branch of life

On the tree of life, the animal kingdom would be a twig growing from one of the boughs called “domains,” the highest category of life. But sitting under domains, and above kingdoms, are branches of creatures that biologists have taken to calling “supergroups.” About five to seven have been found, with the most recent in 2018 — until now.

Understanding more about these potentially undiscovered branches of life helps us understand the foundations of the living world and just how evolution works.

“Ignoring microbial ecosystems, like we often do, is like having a house that needs repair and just redecorating the kitchen, but ignoring the roof or the foundations,” said Dr. Keeling. “This is an ancient branch of the tree of life that is roughly as diverse as the animal and fungi kingdoms combined, and no one knew it was there.”

The researchers plan to sequence whole genomes of the organisms, as well as build 3D reconstructions of the cells, in order to learn about their molecular organization, structure and eating habits.

International culture

Culturing the microbial predators was no mean feat, since they require a mini-ecosystem with their food and their food’s food just to survive in the lab. A difficult process in itself, the cultures were initially grown in Canada and Russia, and both COVID and Russia’s war with Ukraine prevented Russian scientists from visiting the lab in Canada in recent years, slowing down the collaboration.

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How A Hellish Planet Made Of Diamonds Covered By A Lava Ocean Got Where It Is Today



In recent decades it’s become clear that the universe is teeming with planets and astronomers have begun to catalog them by the hundreds. Most of the worlds we’ve discovered so far are remarkably inhospitable and the closer we look at some, the more hellacious they seem to appear.

Case in point is 55 Cancri e, also known as 55 Cnc or by its nickname, Janssen. This world orbits so close to its star, known as Copernicus or 55 Cnc, that a year on its surface passes in only 18 hours and temperatures can soar over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Enduring such extreme conditions for so long has led scientists to suggest that the scalding world could have an interior full of diamonds, covered by a surface ocean of molten lava.

Makes Mauna Loa seem almost minor league on the cosmic scale of volcanism.

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There’s a reason that we keep spotting so many relatively hot planets next to their stars. Call it an inherent bias of our existing tech: it’s just easier to see planets orbiting close in to their stars.

In fact, most exoplanets discovered and cataloged so far have a very good chance of being so-called “hot Jupiters” — giant planets orbiting close-in. Being massive and next to your local source of light makes you especially easy to spot.

So 55 Cancri e is actually an important exoplanet as one of the first small, rocky planets found orbiting extremely close to its star.

Now researchers have made use of a new tool called EXPRES (for EXtreme PREcision Spectrometer) at the Lowell Discovery Telescope in Arizona to make ultra-precise measurements that helped them determine the orbit of this hellish world in more detail.

They found that the planet orbits Copernicus right along the equator of the star and that it likely originally orbited further out and was slowly pulled into its current alignment by the gravitational pull of the star and other objects in the unusual star system.

The system is located only 40 light years from Earth and consists of main-sequence star Copernicus paired with a red dwarf star. The binary duo also count at least five exoplanets that all have very different orbits among their cosmic family.

The new research, led by Lily Zhao at Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics and published in Nature Astronomy, posits that the interactions between these oddball family members shifted Janssen to its current, insufferable orbit.

Although it was pushed, pulled and prodded into its current position, Zhao says that even in its original orbit, the planet “was likely so hot that nothing we’re aware of would be able to survive on the surface.”

What a waste of so much diamond.

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