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Charting a Creative Course in Science

Oceanography Ph.D. candidate, Jill McDermott.
Courtesy of Jill McDermott

Writing and drawing came easily for Jill McDermott. Chemistry, on the other hand, presented a challenge. That's why she chose to make it her career.

Jill McDermott is one of those people for whom you could argue science was an inevitable career choice. Her father is a chemist and her mother a science teacher. McDermott grew up in the remote town of Madawaska, Maine - the northernmost town in the eastern United States. She says she spent a lot of time outside, not least because her father would kick her out to play if he thought she'd been reading too much (a problem I'm sure plenty of parents would love to have).

McDermott also loves a challenge. She actually switched high schools - to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics - because she didn't think her local high school pushed her enough. And while she says drawing and writing were what she did best, chemistry is what she was most proud of, specifically because it was hard. In college, McDermott split her time between studio art and environmental chemistry.

In the end, she chose to pursue chemistry because it combined her curiosity about the natural world with the challenge she sought. She also fell pretty hard for deep sea hydrothermal vents and the experience of going to sea and diving to the bottom of the ocean in the submersible Alvin - experiences she was lucky to have within months of graduating from college.

While McDermott says she doesn't have much time for drawing these days, she describes her approach to science as rooted in the creative process. Just as a potter might attempt to make a mug that is in some way distinct from the thousands of mugs that have come before, McDermott says she constantly tries to push the envelope of science, looking for that sweet spot where her work is novel and exciting but still recognizable.

McDermott is still a graduate student, due to complete her Ph.D. this year, but she's already been part of the team that discovered the deepest known hydrothermal vents along the Mid-Cayman Rise in the Caribbean Sea. More recently, she was one of three authors of a study testing whether such places in the deep sea could have been where life on earth originated.

The work suggested that a molecule scientists previously thought could have been a precursor for life - methanethiol - only exists as a result of life. That doesn't mean life didn't originate at hydrothermal vents, says McDermott. It just didn't happen the way people had been thinking, which is interesting. It also means methanethiol could be used to sniff out life anywhere in the universe - an exciting byproduct of what could be seen as a disappointing result.

McDermott, herself, will be pursuing a different lead, heading to University of Toronto to study the oldest water on Earth - salt water that's been trapped inside rocks for 2.7 billion years, now revealed by mine shafts penetrating some three kilometers below the Earth's surface.

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