ORONO, Maine — Jeffrey Marsh was the first person in the world to lay eyes on menzerite-Y, a species of garnet.
Marsh, 33, of Oakland made the discovery in 2009 while working on his doctorate at the University of Maine.
He is also the first graduate student in the history of the state’s flagship university to be credited with such a find. Scientific discoveries on the Orono campus most often have been made by faculty members and by research professors.
“It was certainly exciting,” Marsh, who now teaches at Colby College in Waterville, said Saturday in an e-mail. “I hadn’t been looking for new minerals at all, but once we realized the potential significance of this find, my collaborators and I jumped into the project headfirst.”
Although menzerite-Y is a garnet, it is not large or showy, according to Edward Grew, the research professor of earth science at UMaine who oversaw Marsh’s work.
“The size of a new mineral has little bearing on its scientific significance,” Grew said in an e-mail. “Far more important than size is the mineral’s significance to science. Jeff’s new mineral is particularly significant because many common garnets, including those found in Maine, contain some yttrium and rare earth elements. [They] are unusually abundant in Jeff’s mineral and make it a new species.”
Yttrium is used in making phosphors, such as the rod ones used in television cathode ray tube displays and in light emitting diodes, or LEDs, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. It also is used in the production of electrodes, electrolytes, electronic filters and lasers.
Marsh is a native of San Diego, Calif., who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in his home state. He collected the rock in which the new mineral was found in Ontario, Canada, along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. Not until Marsh got the 1-inch square sample under a microscope did he make his discovery.
“Beyond the novelty of finding a mineral species that had never been identified before, menzerite’s unique chemical composition has yielded a good amount of information on a previously unknown type of cation substitution — a chemical exchange within a mineral as pressure and temperature conditions change — in garnet group minerals that can better explain a number of observations by other geologists around the world,” Marsh said.
He officially was credited with the discovery after a peer-reviewed article by Marsh, Grew and colleagues published in the October issue of the journal the Canadian Mineralogist. Menzerite-Y officially was recognized and approved in 2009 by the Commission on New Minerals and Mineral Names of the International Mineralogical Association.
It was named in honor of the German crystallographer Georg Menzer, according to Grew.
“As a result of Jeff’s discovery, we now better understand how yttrium and rare earth elements are incorporated in common garnet,” he said. “In the short time since Jeff’s discovery was published, scientists at the University of Texas and the German Georesearch Center in Potsdam are applying his findings in their own research.”
Marsh’s future plans include keeping his eyes on the ground.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story contained an incorrect caption for the photo. Marsh is not pointing to the mineral he is credited with discovering in the photo.