Professor George Philander - Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Princeton University

McDonnell Distinguished Lecture Series Events:

Public Lecture:  The Hedgehog and the Fox - A Nelson Mandela Perspective on Global Warming
      Wednesday, March 28, 7:00 pm
      Location (to be determined)
Colloquium:  Three Characters in Search of an Author - To Tell the Remarkable Story of Our Journey Via Recurrent Ice Ages to the Precarious Present
      Thursday, March 29, 4:15 pm
      Crow Hall, Room 201

From Visiting Scholar to Postdoc: My Journey with the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences -- Pierre Haenecour

My favorite quote from the movie Forrest Gump “Life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get” probably best reflects my interaction with the McDonnell Center for Space Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL).   

It all started in 2008: I was a first-year Master’s student in Geology/Geochemistry at the Free University of Brussels (Brussels, Belgium), and I met one of my parent’s neighbors, Prof. Ghislaine Crozaz, who is an Emerita Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at WUSTL, and Prof. Robert M. Walker, her late husband and former director of the McDonnell Center for Space Sciences (MCSS). Our first interaction happened randomly when we met one day in the elevator and started chatting about the research that I was doing for my Master’s degree. I then started to meet regularly with Ghislaine Crozaz to discuss science, and she would share her experience with me, tell me stories about the “4th Floor” (the Laboratory for Spaces Sciences), and give me advice. Through our discussions, I learned how the MCSS was created to hire new professors and to forge new interdisciplinary research collaborations between different departments at WUSTL, as well as fostering international collaborations.

During the first year of my Master’s, I asked her for advice about possible places where I could apply to do a six-week internship in the summer of 2009. I had already applied to a summer field camp in Hawaii, but, after hearing stories about the history of the 4th floor and the MCSS, and all the great work that was done there, Ghislaine Crozaz suggested that I could maybe do my summer internship at WUSTL. She then introduced me to Prof. Christine Floss (Research Professor in Physics) and Prof. Bradley L. Jolliff (Scott Rudolph Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences) to discuss research collaboration opportunities that would complement the work that I was doing for my Master’s thesis on Pb and Zn isotopes in Archean terrestrial komatiites from Theo’s flow (Ontario, Canada). I visited WUSTL for six weeks in August-September 2009 as a MCSS visiting scholar working with Brad Jolliff on in-situ major element measurements and with Christine Floss on in-situ trace elements measurements in individual minerals (e.g., olivine, pyroxene and plagioclase) in the komatiites. During my internship at WUSTL, I was also able to interact with other professors, researchers and graduate students on the 4th floor and in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences.

Before my summer in St. Louis, I had not thought about staying in academia and pursuing a Ph.D. However, interacting with so many people in both the Physics Department and the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences at WUSTL during my internship made me realize how fun scientific research can be. It was really inspiring to work with both Christine Floss and Brad Jolliff, and get their insights on my Master’s thesis project. On my last day in St Louis, I remember Christine asking me if I would be interested to come back to WUSTL for my Ph.D, and I will also never forget Dr. Frank Stadermann asking me on the way out of Christine’s office something along the lines of: “So when will you be coming back?”.

I graduated with my M.S. degree from the Free University of Brussels in June 2010 and I knew that I wanted to work with Christine Floss for my Ph.D. I started the process to apply for graduate school in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at WUSTL, and moved to St. Louis in January 2011 to start graduate school.

Working as a graduate student on the 4th floor, I had direct hands-on experience with state-of-the-art scientific instruments, such as the NanoSIMS 50. As one of the few research groups that participated in the discovery of stardust (or presolar grains), it was a unique opportunity for me to work on presolar silicate grains on the 4th floor. Indeed, I had the opportunity to interact and work with researchers, such as Dr. Ernst Zinner and Dr. Sachiko Amari, that were directly involved in the original discovery of presolar grains. I had many occasions to participate in events and distinguished lectures organized by the MCSS, from NASA astronauts to renowned planetary scientists and PIs (principle investigators) of NASA space missions. After my graduation in May 2016, I stayed at WUSTL for seven months as a McDonnell Center Postdoctoral Fellow. During these few months, I studied the distribution of presolar grains in Antarctic micrometeorites.

I am currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona working with Prof. Tom Zega and the NASA Earths in Other Solar Systems (EOS) team ( on the characterization and coordinated in-situ study of primitive organic matter in meteorites and interplanetary dust particles.

Throughout my time at WUSTL, the McDonnell Center for Space Sciences has not only provided me with financial support, it has also been a crucial asset to help me develop my academic career and give the opportunity to interact with students and researchers in other WU departments or from other universities, as well as to forge new research collaborations.