Unlocking Age-Old Secrets Set in Stone

Becca Mastrola sits on a rock formation and smiles at the camera.

Image Courtesy Becca Mastrola

Geology rocks. Just ask Becca Mastrola ’24, whose studies into the magnetic properties of meteorites blasted into space billions of years ago are shedding light on the origins of the cosmos.

“I have a passion for understanding where our planet came from, how it came to be over time, and the implications processes on Earth have for other bodies in the universe,” she says. “All of that is so, so interesting.”

The first in her family to attend college, Mastrola is majoring in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences. She is one of 18 students supported this past year by the Edward J. Poitras Scholarship, created in 1982 by electrical engineer and inventor Edward J. Poitras ’28. Since its inception, the scholarship fund has benefited more than 200 students.

“Without that scholarship, I wouldn’t be here,” Mastrola says. “MIT is a really collaborative environment, and I have had so much fun working with my peers, meeting new people, and getting to know some of the greatest minds on Earth.

“We’re all going on journeys, maybe in separate directions, but we’re working together, growing together and changing together, just like the surface of Earth.”

Currently, she is studying the magnetic properties of a type of meteorite called primitive achondrites, blasted into space before the formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago.

The magnetic signature of the meteorite, she says, gives clues to the properties of the parent body from which it originated eons ago, and adds to our knowledge of the early processes of the universe.

“When our universe started to expand, we had a bunch of tiny little particles that lumped together,” Mastrola says.

“They smashed into each other and started accreting and growing and growing and became bigger and bigger. They got up to these kilometer-sized objects that kept going and smashing into each other and kept growing and growing.

“I’m working with one particular meteorite right now to figure out how big its parent body got. What actually happened as these materials started getting bigger?”

Mastrola aspires to earn an advanced degree and become a college professor in Earth science. “I am passionate about teaching, and I love breaking people’s misconceptions about geology,” she says. “Some think it’s irrelevant or boring and that all we do is look at rocks. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“I am passionate about teaching, and I love breaking people’s misconceptions about geology,” Mastrola says.

For example, she says, geologists add to our understanding of climate change by exploring the history of Earth’s climate that is captured in the geologic record. Oxygen isotopes are a common and useful proxy for paleotemperatures.

“We can figure out what fluctuations in climate are normal, and the time periods over which these fluctuations occurred,” she says. “We can also determine what’s not normal and what’s going on way too quickly. We know there are human impacts on the environment right now because of how rapidly the Earth is warming and levels of carbon dioxide are changing.

“Thanks to the record left behind in rocks, we know what has happened on Earth, and that what’s going on now is not normal,” Mastrola says. “We need to make a change if we are going to have hope for the future of the Earth.

“So many branches of science tie into geology,” she says. “I hope to get other students interested in the field, if not to pursue it as a career then to have an appreciation of Earth and the incredible journey we’ve been on to get here today.”

Last year, she took part in a geologic field expedition in California’s Mojave Desert. “It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. On her bucket list: “I would love to go to the Swiss Alps, and there’s a really well-preserved impact crater in Germany I would love to see,” she says.

“Being a complete rock nerd, I love my rocks,” Mastrola says. “But I think learning about the Earth and how we came to be where we are today is such an important thing to study. I’m so grateful to be able to do just that for the rest of my life.”