Stone Diarist: A ROM Geologist Delves into Atomic Structure to Discover New Minerals

Article excerpt

For many women, the allure of gemstones lies in how they look set in a beautiful necklace or pair of earrings. But ROM mineralogist Kim Tait's interest goes deeper--down to the atomic level at which she analyzes their chemical makeup. The University of Manitoba grad, now responsible for the ROM's approximately 100,000-piece collection of minerals, gems, and meteorites, is searching for new minerals--ones that have not previously been documented by science.

"Minerals are described based on how the elements are put together at the atomic level," says Tait, who is currently on maternity leave and balances baby, Emily, on her lap. "If you think of it like a cookie, you'd typically have your chocolate chips and flour and sugar. But sometimes there's a little oatmeal in there. So with enough oatmeal, it can be a new mineral."

In a basement lab, Tait spends hours at a scanning electron microscope, which reveals a mineral's basic chemistry--in cookie analogy, the ingredients--and X-ray diffraction equipment, which exposes a mineral's structure--or how the ingredients are mixed together. When equipment in the ROM's lab is not powerful enough, Tait travels to Chicago to use a state-of-the-art instrument called a synchrotron--which accelerates sub-atomic particles to almost the speed of light, enabling her to see the crystal structure.

Right now, she's fascinated by phosphates, a group of poorly known minerals she worked on for her Master's degree--work that uncovered a new phosphate, manitobaite, which will soon be published in the Canadian Mineralogist. How minerals behave under extreme conditions is another research interest. By compressing a mineral between two diamonds, she's able to exert gigapascals of pressure--which simulates how minerals might behave deep within the Earth. Not one to leave any stone unturned, last year Tait searched successfully for fragments of the Buzzard Coulee meteorite in Saskatchewan.

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It's hard to know how the Manitoba native squeezes in time for research. Since joining the Museum in 2007, Tait has planned the ROM's new Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth's Treasures, which opened in 2008. Selecting a striking representative showcase of gems, minerals, and meteorites was more difficult than she had imagined--there's display space for only 4 percent of the collection. …