Quinton Vitelli-Hawkins, Geochemist

My name is Quinton Vitelli-Hawkins, and I am an adjunct instructor at the University of South Florida (USF). I received my Bachelor’s of Science in Geology and a minor in Astronomy in 2020 and my Master’s of Science in Geology in 2022 from USF. 

I have always had a love for space. Initially, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer designing rockets that would take us back to the Moon and eventually to Mars. However, in my first semester at USF, I took a course called “History of Life” where I discovered the field of astrogeology and found my passion.

As an undergraduate, I worked in Dr. Matthew Pasek’s astrobiology lab with Chris Mehta, a former USF graduate student, on the ability of meteors to deliver organic compounds to Earth. I assisted in calculating the minimum velocity necessary for a carbonaceous asteroid to enter the atmosphere of the Earth. We discovered meteors only provide trace amounts of organic matter to the surface and other processes (i.e., hydrothermal vents) are most likely responsible for many of the organic constituents necessary for life on Earth.

A white man with short hair wearing a white lab coat and gloves looking at something in a series of handheld tubes
I am synthesizing organic compounds using electric discharges in an environment simulating Earth’s primordial atmosphere.

My master’s thesis focused on ice deposits in lava tubes in west-central New Mexico as archives of past volcanic eruptions and climate change. Currently, the Southwest is experiencing a “megadrought” phase. My thesis had an important objective: is the current megadrought plaguing the Southwestern United States a result of anthropogenic (i.e., human) warming? To answer this question, I conducted field work at El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico where I extracted a 1.1 m long ice core from a lava tube. I then melted the ice and transported it to the USF geochemistry lab, where I conducted geochemical analytical techniques (stable isotopes, tracer elements) to unravel the Southwest’s paleoclimate. The ice also contained charcoal deposits from Ancestral Puebloans that used it as a source of drinking water during precolonial droughts. By examining past droughts and determining their possible causes, I am potentially able to learn how significant human factors may be causing the current megadrought. Trends in the Southwest’s paleoclimate record demonstrate that the Southwest should be undergoing a period of wetter conditions from stronger summer rains; however, the current megadrought suggests this is possibly being inhibited from occurring by anthropogenic effects. Furthermore, the ice in the lava tubes at El Malpais is rapidly depleting, making their examination a priority. 

3 people standing in a cave of dark gray rock looking at the camera. Wearing hard hats.
I am in a lava tube at El Malpais National Monument with my lab partner, Laura Calabrò (center), and national park service member, Laura Baumann (right).

I am also a member of the Scientist in Every Florida School (SEFS) Program in which every couple of weeks I speak with primary and secondary education students about what I do. I feel it is extremely important to make an impression on children in the American education system of the importance that science has in today’s world and help inspire them to pursue a career in STEM. 

A person standing in front of a group of people sitting at desks wearing a mask. Kids are in the desks. Person is a white man wearing a long sleeve shirt
I am giving a presentation about my research to a class of 3rd graders.

I plan on pursuing a career in planetary science and eventually obtaining a PhD so I can work for a NASA research center or academic institution, and my ultimate goal is to be an astronaut.

When I am not working, I am most likely playing or watching hockey. I have been playing since before I can remember, and my favorite team is the Nashville Predators. Additionally, since I currently live in Florida, I have the privilege of seeing rocket launches. I typically take the perilous trek on I-4 from Tampa on the west coast to the Kennedy Space Center on the east coast at least once a month to catch one. Some of the memorable launches I have been to are the Space X Crew Demo-2, STS-133, Curiosity, and Artemis I. 

Follow Quinton’s updates on Instagram @the_real_blanket