(Photo: Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media)
As an eighth grader, Maureen Long got her first lessons in earth science. In an exercise where students had to find the boundaries of the tectonic plates plates with a list of earthquake locations and a list of volcanoes locations, her imagination was captivated. She’d never heard of plate tectonics before, but she nevertheless identified this field as the leading candidate for her future career.
She continued to enjoy her math and physics classes throughout middle and high school and began a geology major and physics minor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She got involved in research early during her sophomore year and spent two summers in the lab of Shun-Ichiro Karato (now a professor at Yale coincidentally) working on rock deformation and rock mechanics, things like squeezing rocks at high pressures and temperatures to see how they behave.
At RPI, she mostly worked on making very precise GPS measurements of crust deformation in the Cascadia area, doing field work in Oregon and Washington on the Olympic peninsula, where there are very obvious earthquake hazards (I began to worry here as well, fellow Seattlites). Part of the goal of her project was to understand the geographical extent of the megathrust fault, the main subduction zone fault that’s locked. Essentially, how in trouble is Seattle when we get the next magnitude nine earthquake? She went to her first scientific meetings and presented her first posters. This experiences, getting into research early, she says helped her see that science is not about the set of facts in a textbook, it’s about questions we don’t know the answer to yet.
She did my graduate work at MIT in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences surrounded amazing fellow students and a very intense culture, which she thoroughly enjoyed. With a supportive research mentor, she took the reigns of her career and wrote her thesis on Anisotropy and Deformation in the Earth’s Mantle.
Anisotropy, for those of you who aren’t avid geophysicists, can be thought of in the following way. Imagine standing in a harbor with many sailboats anchored in it. If it’s a windy day, you can look at the sailboats and you can say which way the wind is blowing because they will all be aligned in a certain direction. That’s apparently pretty similar to what happens in the mantle, where mantle convection pushes mantle flow and causes it to sheer in a certain direction. Then all of the seismic waves, from earthquakes, line up in that direction. If you didn’t get all that, just remember it’s a tool to tell what the mantle is doing.
She continued on to a postdoc at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution for Science, a fairly unique institution with only six departments and maybe fifteen or so permanent staff scientists and a roughly equal number of postdocs. With the freedom of this prestigious institution, she began to think about the questions she wanted to shape her career, and she developed a few main interests in seismic anisotropy (briefly described above), subduction zones, the core-mantle boundary, and the lithosphere (Stay tuned this month for explanations of what these are and why they matter).
Professor Long has continued to research these subjects and teach about them at Yale for ten years last month (Jan 2020). She is the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Geology and Geophysics, a Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union. She typically teaches G&G100: Natural Disasters in the Fall and G&G240: Forensic Geoscience in the Spring.