Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hello, I am John Ajayi, currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut (UConn). Prior to joining UConn, I obtained a Bachelor of Technology degree in Applied Geology from the highly reputable Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA) in Nigeria. I am a huge football fan (soccer in the U.S.), spending my free weekends watching top games in the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, and some Major League Soccer (I do not really have a favorite football club I support, I just enjoy each game, wishing the better team luck and enjoying the upset drama that occurs in sports). A good part of my week is spent reading books written by top-selling authors on different aspects of life, career, economics, finance, psychology, family, and some biographies. This also determines the kind of movies I watch. I mostly find documentaries interesting. I also spend time visiting friends and colleagues. It is one of the ways I provide and get support as a graduate student far away from my home country.
What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? As an organic geochemist, I explore geochemical patterns of organic biomarkers to study different Earth processes. The approach to my studies is very interdisciplinary, combining knowledge and techniques of geology, chemistry, biology, and geographic information systems (GIS). These allow me to integrate these data to reconstruct the history of the Earth’s environment, and some changes in the Earth’s dynamics. I prepare rock and soil samples for organic biomarker extraction and subsequent compound-specific isotopic analysis. I use the Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer to analyze the Hydrogen (δ2H) and Carbon (δ13C) isotope ratio of organic compounds (such as alkanes, and fatty acids) produced by plants and preserved in sedimentary archives. These are utilized as proxies to reconstruct paleohydrology, paleoclimate, and other paleoenvironmental changes that might have occurred during a given geologic time either due to an external or internal driving process. My current study involves reconstructing the paleoelevation of a tropical mountain currently growing due to an ongoing collision between two tectonic plates.
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? I chose to study Geology in college specifically because I am very adventurous, I love being outdoors, exploring nature and travel. In fact, I was almost going to train to become a pilot with the dream to travel round the world and view scenic landscape and geomorphic features from the cockpit. This ambition metamorphosed to a closer interaction with the Earth, studying the processes that shaped the landscapes and reconstructing the history of our dynamic planet. During my third year in college, I enrolled in a Geochemistry class which exposed me to different aspects of this subdiscipline of Earth Sciences. What I find most fascinating about geochemistry is the idea that every process leaves a geochemical signal that if studied critically can be uncovered and reconstructed. Thus, I see geochemistry as a versatile tool to tackle any problem, ranging from environmental pollution to hydrology (and groundwater hydrology), energy and mineral exploration (such as in petroleum exploration, and metallic ore deposit exploration), and paleoclimate reconstruction. This informed the decision to become a geochemist. I have also become interested in studies related to the origin of life, particularly exploring the chemosynthetic pathway. This could provide more clues for the exploration of life on other planets in our solar system. I follow scientific discoveries from the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) expeditions which explore scientific curiosities below the seafloor.
How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? My current study on reconstructing the paleoelevation of mountain belts is fundamental to various aspects of the Earth’s dynamic systems. To simply state it, the topography of a mountain represents a dynamic balance between deep Earth mantle processes driving plate tectonics, rock exhumation and surface uplift, and surface processes of weathering, erosion, and denudation which cause a reduction/change in surface elevation due to re-distribution of mass, these two major components are modulated by a third major component- climate. Silicate weathering in tandem with carbonate precipitation in the marine environment has been shown to facilitate CO2 drawdown in geologic time. Therefore, generating records of past topography will allow us to constrain the feedback among these (tectonics, erosion, and climate). We can estimate how much CO2 has been introduced into the atmosphere due to the exhumation of buried organic carbon in rocks, mantle degassing via volcanoes, and other tectonic processes, and as well estimate the amount of CO2 drawdown as fresh mineral surfaces are exposed to weathering reactions during exhumation and subsequent removal by erosion due to steeper gradient as rocks uplift. The product of the balance between all these is the topography of a mountain. The mountain itself has a considerable effect on both local and regional climates by serving as an orographic barrier, inducing more precipitation on the orographic front of the mountain and aridity on the leeward side, and also causing a change in atmospheric circulation patterns. Records from my studies will be valuable input in paleoclimate modeling, especially as we face an uncertain future of climate change.
What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? I will leave two of my favorite quotes to inspire upcoming scientists. “Persistence breaks resistance” (original source unknown) and “Curiosity and perseverance matter” (Ben Cichy). Due to word count constraints, I will not be able to share stories to really explain the lessons these quotes impressed on me in my journey as a scientist. First, be very curious, challenge everything, and ask questions (why, when, how, what if, what about this, is there another way to do what better, any other explanation for why? etc.) According to Thomas Edison- “There is a better way to do it- Find it”, so follow science perseveringly. With thousands of failed experiments, he did not give up, but eventually solved the puzzle, and became one of the greatest inventors. Ben shared the story of his struggles as an engineering student in college, but his curiosity and perseverance as an engineer have helped him land two spacecraft on Mars. As my advisor reiterated countless times to me, there is no right or wrong answer and no one right answer, do not think as a student. Think like a scientist. This is something I wished I had known or understood earlier before starting my graduate program. I encourage everyone to enjoy the process of becoming the kind of scientist they want to be.