From Rice University: Women in STEM-“Fed grant backs Rice earthquake research” Geologist Melodie French

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From Rice University

January 31, 2020

Jeff Falk

Mike Williams

Geologist Melodie French wins National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Rice University geologist Melodie French has earned a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to support her investigation of the tectonic roots of earthquakes and tsunamis. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in 1996, USGS.

Rice University geologist Melodie French is crushing it in her quest to understand the physics responsible for earthquakes.

The assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary science has earned a prestigious CAREER Award, a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $600,000 to support her investigation of the tectonic roots of earthquakes and tsunamis.

CAREER awards support the research and educational development of young scholars likely to become leaders in their fields. The grants, among the most competitive awarded by the NSF, go to fewer than 400 scholars each year across all disciplines.

For French, the award gives her Rice lab the opportunity to study rocks exhumed from subduction zones at plate boundaries that are often the source of megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis. Her lab squeezes rock samples to characterize the strength of the rocks deep underground where the plates meet.

“Fundamentally, we hope to learn how the material properties of the rocks themselves control where earthquakes happen, how big one might become, what causes an earthquake to sometimes arrest after only a small amount of slip or what allows some to grow quite large,” French said.

“A lot of geophysics involves putting out instruments to see signals that propagate to the Earth’s surface,” she said. “But we try to understand the properties of the rocks that allow these different phenomena to happen.”

That generally involves putting rocks under extreme stress. “We squish rocks at different temperatures and pressures and at different rates while measuring force and strain in as many dimensions as we can,” French said. “That gives us a full picture of how the rocks deform under different conditions.”

The lab conducts experiments on both exposed surface rocks that were once deep within subduction zones and rock acquired by drilling for core samples.

Rice University geologist Melodie French and graduate student Ben Belzer work with a rock sample. French has been granted a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study the tectonic roots of earthquakes and tsunamis. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

I’m working with (Rice Professor) Juli Morgan on a subduction zone off of New Zealand where they drilled through part of the fault zone and brought rock up from about 500 meters deep,” French said. “But many big earthquakes happen much deeper than we could ever drill. So we need to go into the field to find ancient subduction rocks that have somehow managed to come to the surface.”

French is not sure if it will ever be possible to accurately predict earthquakes. “But one thing we can do is create better hazard maps to help us understand what regions should be prepared for quakes,” she said.

French is a native of Maine who earned her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College, a master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D. at Texas A&M University.

The award, co-funded by the NSF’s Geophysics, Tectonics and Marine Geology and Geophysics programs, will also provide inquiry-based educational opportunities in scientific instrument design and use to K-12 students as well as undergraduate and graduate-level students.

Geologist Melodie French sets up an experiment in her Rice University lab. She has won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a prestigious grant given to young scholars likely to become leaders in their fields. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

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In his 1912 inaugural address, Rice University president Edgar Odell Lovett set forth an ambitious vision for a great research university in Houston, Texas; one dedicated to excellence across the range of human endeavor. With this bold beginning in mind, and with Rice’s centennial approaching, it is time to ask again what we aspire to in a dynamic and shrinking world in which education and the production of knowledge will play an even greater role. What shall our vision be for Rice as we prepare for its second century, and how ought we to advance over the next decade?

This was the fundamental question posed in the Call to Conversation, a document released to the Rice community in summer 2005. The Call to Conversation asked us to reexamine many aspects of our enterprise, from our fundamental mission and aspirations to the manner in which we define and achieve excellence. It identified the pressures of a constantly changing and increasingly competitive landscape; it asked us to assess honestly Rice’s comparative strengths and weaknesses; and it called on us to define strategic priorities for the future, an effort that will be a focus of the next phase of this process.