Dr. Thelma Berquó
Associate Professor of Physics

Where are you from and what is your expertise?

I was born in Brazil and moved to the U.S. to work at the Institute of Rock Magnetism (IRM) at the University of Minnesota. I have a background in physics and my Ph.D. was in geophysics. My main interest is to investigate the magnetic properties of materials, specifically geological materials. I also work with laboratory-prepared samples that are analogs to iron phases present on the surfaces of Earth and Mars.

How long have you been at Concordia and what courses do you teach?

I joined the physics department at Concordia in Fall 2011. We are expected to teach all the disciplines across the curriculum, so I have been teaching introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses in physics. I also teach the interdisciplinary course Introduction to Materials Science and Geology for non-science majors.

What course is your favorite to teach and why?

I don’t think I have a favorite course. I like to teach all of them! In the different courses I teach, I can share with my students some of my previous experiences in the different disciplines I have worked in. I can share my passion for physics and its application in geosciences, or how fundamental ideas presented in introductory physics courses and a more intermediate course of modern physics are related to the instruments I work in my research. The interpretation of the results of my research work also needs a background in the materials science course. Thus, I have the opportunity to show my students the importance of having a strong background in these courses and how the topics are useful when you go to graduate school and research the STEM job market.

What do you love about your job?

The best part of my job is the contact with my students. I gain a lot with every group of students I interact with. I learn different points of view and, as a non-native English speaker, some students teach me new words that were not part of my vocabulary yet!

Tell us about some of the research you have worked on.

I work with magnetic identification and characterization of a broad class of materials called iron oxides. There are several of them in nature and they can also be prepared in a laboratory. This class of materials has important technological, medical, and environmental applications. Since iron is the fourth most abundant element on Earth, we have iron phases present in different places such as soils, sediments, rocks, bacteria that produce iron oxides, birds use them as a compass during the migration process to follow Earth’s magnetic field, and also the human body. Most of us had some contact with one or more of these iron phases; for example, magnets or rust. They are also inside your computer.

My research is mainly focused on the investigation of the fundamental properties of iron oxides. I want to make little changes in the atomic structure of a specific iron phase by adding a different atom to the structure. These little modifications may change the properties of the iron oxides and we can study the effects on the magnetic properties of this new material. Sometimes these modifications help us to understand iron oxides that were produced on Earth’s surface. To access the possible changes in the properties of materials I study, I use a nuclear technique that gives us information about the magnetic property of iron phases (Mössbauer spectroscopy) and low and high-temperature magnetometry, where I use a combination of magnetometers to collect data between 2 K and 1000 K. Some of these magnetometers are not available at Concordia and I travel to the Institute for Rock Magnetism at the University of Minnesota to collect the data.

What research opportunities are open to undergraduate students at Concordia?

Since I arrived at Concordia, I have had students working with me during the summer and a couple of students worked with me during the fall and/or spring semesters. This is a great experience for students to be exposed to the dynamics of research work, where we don’t have the answers to everything. We are learning new content and using the knowledge we currently have to discover new things. When possible, they travel with me to the Twin Cities to work at the University of Minnesota. We spend a week working in a multimillion-dollar research lab at a big university and after that do the data analysis here at Concordia. In this experience at the University of Minnesota, students are inserted into the dynamic of the lab and interact with grad students and post-docs, having firsthand experience of how to do research in graduate school.

What recommendations do you have for students who are thinking about graduate school?

The important advice I give to my students is for them to have as much research and internship experience as possible, either here at Concordia or elsewhere. The physics department offers research opportunities every summer for our students and they get a stipend to work with faculty. It is also important to engage in one of the extracurricular activities that are offered and funded by NASA’s Minnesota Space Grant Consortium.

Read about Dr. Berquó’s NSF research grant

Published October 2022