Tim Glotch: RIS4E Rock Star

RIS4E principal investigator Tim Glotch in his lab with a vacuum box he’s using to explore the cause of space weathering. (Photo: Elizabeth Bass)


By Taylor Ha

Each rock tells a story.

There’s a dark, wheat-colored tuft of “Pele’s hair” – fine threads of volcanic glass that he plucked near the base of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. A colorful box filled with rocks from a hot, dry, windy site in China that resembles the surface of Mars. Hardened black chunks of lava stuck to a metal paint stirrer, a once-molten memento from an expedition to Mount Kilauea in Hawaii.

“Just run up there, jam it in, and run away because it’s like walking inside of an oven,” the owner of the rocks says with a smile.

They belong to Dr. Timothy Glotch, a planetary geologist at Stony Brook University. At age 39, he heads a NASA-funded, 43-person team exploring the science of the moon, Mars’ moons and near-Earth asteroids.

Glotch has two major research goals as the project’s principal investigator. He wants to use spectroscopy – data about how different materials reflect or absorb light – to solve various problems in Earth and planetary science, and he wants to understand how water shapes Mars’ surface. Working out of a brand-new lab in the Earth and Space Sciences building, he also heads the Planetary Spectroscopy Research Group and the Vibrational Spectroscopy Laboratory at Stony Brook University.

But lately, he might be better known as the principal investigator of RIS4E – Remote In Situ and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration – the $5.5 million project that is part of NASA’s preparations for sending astronauts back to the moon or on to Mars.

The rocks in Tim Glotch’s office include, at left,  Pele’s hair, a sheaf of golden threads of volcanic glass from Hawaii. (Photo: Taylor Ha)

Since late 2013, the RIS4E team has been collectively tackling four key research themes: understanding how temperature and space weathering of airless bodies like the moon affect the data sent back by devices on unmanned spacecraft; evaluating portable  instruments to be used by future space explorers; determining how astronauts will be affected by harsh space environments, and using Brookhaven National Laboratory’s super bright National Synchrotron Light Source II to examine actual pieces of the moon and similar materials found on Earth.

About 20 percent of Glotch’s day is normally spent on the five-year study, he said. But he’s also occupied with other grant proposals and research projects; with publishing his findings  – he has authored or co-authored more than 40 scientific journal articles – with family and friends, teaching and, inevitably, rocks.

In 2012, Glotch won the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development program award – an honor given to young, talented faculty members who embody the role of an ideal teacher-scholar.

“He is an academic star,” said Gregory K. Schmidt, Deputy Director of SSERVI, the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute – a virtual institute that is advancing American space exploration through 13 teams, including RIS4E. “But one of the nice things about him is he’s also just Tim.”

Jupiter and Mars

Young Tim’s story starts with the stars.

“When I was seven or eight years old, my dad bought a telescope for Christmas,” Glotch remembered. “We’d hang out in the driveway, looking at Jupiter and, you know, stars and stuff.” Those starry nights, along with childhood storybooks about outer space, sparked the beginning of what he called his “space geek mentality.”  

He started out as a physics and astronomy major at Colgate University in 1995. But after working on a class project, he wasn’t quite as excited about quasars and galaxies as when he was a child. It was hard to conjure excitement about distant galaxies millions of light years away.

“I found it like, just boring as all hell,” he said with a chuckle. “You’re looking at these little points of light and you’re measuring how bright they are, then how dim they are over time, over and over and over and over and over and over again.”

Then in July 1997, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder safely landed on the red planet. Glotch recalled how he and his fellow students crowded around an old television set in one of the dorms. That’s where Glotch saw NASA scientists explain their discoveries – an event that would, eventually, point him toward his career.

“They looked like they were having fun at their job,” Glotch said. “I didn’t want to be cooped up in a tiny room at a desk in front of a computer for the rest of my life.”

Glotch, who had just finished his sophomore year, pored through any information he could find about the mission. After taking his first geology course the next semester, he was hooked.

“You can touch a rock,” he said. “You can’t touch a quasar.”

Two years after the Mars Pathfinder landed, he left Colgate with a bachelor of arts in astrogeophysics. Then five years later, in 2004, he earned his Ph.D. in Geological Sciences at Arizona State University.

“Tim, since the time I found him, has always been very outgoing and friendly and full of ideas. [He would say things like] ‘Hey, can we do this? Can we work on that?’” Philip Christensen, Glotch’s Ph.D. adviser at ASU, said, recalling working on Mars rovers with Glotch in California.

At ASU, he also met his future wife – Deanne Rogers, who also happens to be a RIS4E co-investigator. Rogers was one of the 15 or 16 students in their graduate program. The two of them, who shared a love for ’90s alternative rock as well as geology, eventually fell in love.

Rocks and minerals populate their family home, although their interests do diverge.

“I’ve just always had a thing for rocks,” Rogers said. “He seems to go for the minerals.”

Finding an Alien Pear in the Lab

Only a dark, periwinkle-blue rectangle is visible at first. But as Glotch adjusts the confocal microscope’s focus with a remote, the dim image on the computer screen slowly grows lighter, like the way the sky transitions from dusk to dawn.

As the image within the rectangular box grows sharper, the mysterious landscape starts to unfold. There’s a gray-blue terrain of tiny whirlpools, craters and rivers on a spongy surface. Thanks to the confocal microscope, Glotch not only can view the topographic features of the “landscape” but he can also retrieve 3-D information about them.

He scans the terrain for a few minutes, finally zooming in on a spot that could be a dust particle. But when the dust particle is magnified with the microscope, it looks less like a speck and more like a fruit – an alien, gray blue pear with a thick, dark branch protruding from its head and two arms.

“Could you kill the lights?” Glotch asks Katlyn LaFranca, a graduate student observing his actions in the lab. Click.

But Glotch is not examining Earth’s or Mars’s topography. Nor is he looking at lunar analog samples or remote sensing data, his usual research subjects. Today, he’s searching for dust particles within the magnified landscape of a mouse lung slice – a slice that’s tinier than the iris of a human eyeball.

Once he locates the dust particles, he will use a device connected to the microscope – a Raman spectrometer, or a device that uses the scattering of light, typically from a laser, to identify materials – in order to figure out the dust’s components. And once he identifies the specific minerals in the dust particles, he can link them to specific ailments that will ultimately help the RIS4E team understand how lunar dust affects the respiratory health of astronauts. 

For now, the mouse lung samples are practice subjects. Once Glotch and his research partners find the dust particles and characterize what they’re made of, they will receive actual human lung samples.

“Eventually, we’re going to be looking at samples that have been taken from the lungs of soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan who have breathed in dust,” he says. “We use this instrument to try to understand what that stuff is made out of and what’s contributing to respiratory health problems they’ve had since they’ve returned.”

G.J.G. Moon and C.R.G. Mars

Glotch’s day typically begins around 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m.. On Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday mornings, Glotch, an avid half-marathon contender, runs before breakfast. Then the day becomes more hectic: juggling the kids’ school pickup and drop-off schedule with Rogers, answering overnight emails, attending to the “infinite” to-do list on his whiteboard, working on papers and research projects and collaborating with his students.

Glotch is both a graduate student mentor and the Graduate Program Director for his department – the person in charge of admitting new graduate students.

“Every time I have a Ph.D. student either pass their Ph.D. qualifying exam or defend their Ph.D., we have a little party,” he said. More than a dozen empty bottles that once held Korbel champagne and Martinelli’s sparkling cider remain as testament on one of his office bookshelves. Each one is signed and dated by a former student.

Near the signed and dated tokens is a stack of old exams from last semester,  tokens from a different group of students – his undergraduates. Glotch, who began at Stony Brook University as a faculty member in 2007, is currently an associate professor of geosciences.

On his arms is something that surprises some of them – a set of tattoos.

“When I first met him, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh – okay, cool,’” Brooke Phillips, one of Glotch’s graduate students, recalled. “Because I was always so paranoid about my tattoos.”

Tattooed in black ink on his right arm are the initials “C.J.G.” – for his daughter, Charlotte Jean Glotch – and a drawing of the moon. On his left arm, he has the initials “C.R.G.” – for his son, Cameron Rogers Glotch – and a tattooed replica of Mars. Glotch received those tattoos in 2015.

When it comes to tattoos, he said, “You’re never too old..

Tim Glotch and Deanne Rogers, his wife and fellow RIS4E researcher, with their children, Cameron and Charlotte.  (Photo courtesy of Timothy Glotch).

Granite in Avalon Park

Signs of his children, Charlotte and Cameron, are scattered throughout his office: a rainbow drawn on a sheet of paper taped to his office door, a pink card with a cake drawn in crayon that says, “Happy Bithddey,” a colored-in Hello Kitty astronaut picture and a framed photo of the third-grader and kindergartener. The two children have bestowed tokens of love to their dad, and so has he through his passion for planetary geology.

On an uncannily warm day last February, the family embarked on a hike at Stony Brook’s Avalon Park & Preserve. At an intersection between two trails, there’s a boulder – a huge chunk of granite that the kids like to climb, Glotch said. Their children are curious about not only the big rocks, but also the little ones.

“‘Oh, I think that’s a feldspar!’” Glotch said, imitating something Charlotte might say. Then there’s young Cameron, who, Glotch said, often points toward different rocks and asks, “What’s this one? What’s that one?”

“I’d say the way science kind of intrudes into our everyday life is mostly through our kids and just the observations that they’re making of the world,” Glotch remarked. “And Deanne and I just happen to know more about rocks than the average person.”