Large vaulted ceilings, old woodwork and stained glass dating back to the early 1900s overpowers you as you walk into the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
But wander the halls, and you’ll be met with modern areas equipped with digital content and displays. It’s a mix of old and new that honors the history and cultures the museum tries to preserve, while educating one million visitors a year.
The exhibits go beyond prehistoric dinosaur bones. It includes those featuring art and culture. In January 2019, the museum will host the art and jewelry of Paula Crevoshay, an American artist. Crevoshay is known as the “Queen of Color,” and much of her jewelry mimics nature’s hues. Her designs center around objects that are historically important and naturally inspired.
On the other side of the aisle, Aaron Celestian, Ph.D., is an associate curator at the museum. But at heart, he’s a mineralogist and geochemist. Add to that a researcher, and humbly, an educator and conservationist.
“My role is exclusively research-driven,” he said. “I do a lot of acquisition of specimens for the museum. But mostly I use the collection for research purposes.”
His research interests are inspired by how minerals function on Earth and other terrestrial bodies. It aims at making mineral collections exciting to industry. In deciphering mechanisms at the atomic and molecular level, he hopes to understand, predict, and even manipulate mineral behaviors and properties at the macroscopic scale.
Celestian studies how minerals interact with elements to make the planet a better place to live. In order to determine how minerals grow and behave in varied environmental and industrial conditions, much of his work is carried out in natural conditions and data are collected in real-time, in ways that don’t destroy his samples.
“That’s why I like using the HORIBA equipment, because its non-destructive,” he said. “Some minerals are very rare. We try to do as much research as non-destructive as we can.”
For example, Celestian has worked with zeolites, a group of minerals with common characteristics. One, called sitinakite, is only found in one mine on the Kola Peninsula in Russia. When you put the mineral in water, sitinakite is good at is absorbing cesium, a byproduct of spent nuclear fuel. The mineral can be used to clean up nuclear waste sites.
Zeolites are good absorbers and are often used in industry for cleaning industrial waste and is an ingredient in cat litter. It absorbs ammonium out of urine.
“I’m trying to use minerals to try to remediate things that humans are doing to cause environmental problems,” Celestian said.
Celestian uses a HORIBA Scientific XGT 7200 X-Ray microscope which he employs for non-destructive elemental analysis.
“I also use Raman a lot – the HORIBA XploRA™ Plus,” he said. “We use it for lots of things, like monitoring chemical reactions of the minerals. It will do the analysis in real time. I use it for characterizing the fluid inclusions inside of minerals on earth and potentially other planets.”
A sample mission to Mars is planned with a return is scheduled for 2028. It’s 10 years off in the future, yet Celestian and his team at the Jet Propulsion Lab are preparing for that mission. The team is doing some of the ground work to look for bacteria and beta carotenes trapped inside the minerals to show life once existed there.
Celestian’s goals are to better understand mineral processes that are happening on earth and other planets. He wants to apply that to societal problems, like radioactive waste and carbon dioxide sequestration.
“I’m trying to develop the technology to enable the conservationists to do their job efficiently,” he said. “The flip side to that is the same thing that’s useful for conservationists are also used for increasing gas production from oil and other industrial applications.”
His other goal is to educate the public. It’s the primary reason he came to the museum two-and-a-half years ago, after serving as a geology professor at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.
Celestian offers his lab services to many researchers, to be as inclusive as possible,” he said. He brings in people from community colleges and high schools to do research at the museum. He said he gets a lot more exposure for mineral collections and science out in front of the public that way, the educational arm of his objectives.
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