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The creative part is dream- ing up ideas for what you can develop to use as a tool to understand the Earth. BRUCE WATSON Early Earth SEBASTIAN MERGELSBERG 12 The story of how life began on Earth surrounds us but instead of being written in words its written in nature some of it in stone. In the lab of Bruce Watson Institute Professor and Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences researchers use their knowledge of geochemistry to create tools that help us read that story. The creative part is dreaming up ideas for what you can develop to use as a tool to understand the Earth Professor Watson said. The first step is knowing the important questions Whats interesting Whats important What dont we know Knowing what we dont know is probably more important than knowing what we do know. When Sebastian Mergelsberg 12 joined the lab Professor Watson had just the question for him. He suggested that Mergelsberg examine apatite a mineral that is believed to contain some of the oldest signatures of life on Earth in the form of carbon impurities that have less than the usual amount of the isotope carbon 13. Because carbon 13 is metabolized during biochemical reactions so-called light carbon is evidence of life. But is the apatite crystal a tight container holding a sample that dates from its own formation or could the light carbon have slipped in over millennia of heat and pressure deep beneath the surface of the Earth We were trying to trace a process that would have happened over 4 billion years said Mergelsberg now a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech in biogeochemistry. Research taught me how to acquire information on my own. Through the process I learned how to review existing knowledge to design a project to assess the potential of a labthings that you cant learn in a classroom said Mergelsberg. It has made me much more independent as a researcher. dedicated to discovery 27