LC: As a biology student, I’ll sometimes be walking down the street, living my daily life, and something will stop me--"Why are this tree’s leaves this shape?” or whatever. I wonder, when do geology or seismology or the earth sciences pop up in your daily life?
ML: Well this is particularly because in the last five years I’ve started doing a bunch of scientific work in eastern North America, deploying seismometers to understand the structure of the crust and mantle. I really do experience driving around and seeing rocks on the side of the highway differently I think than probably most people. And I’m a geophysicist, I work with seismic data and think about the deep earth; I’m not a classical geologist who spends a lot of research time walking around on outcrops trying to look at rocks. But earth scientists really do get into the mind of looking at a rock or an outcrop or whatever and thinking about the story that it tells about how the Earth works.
LC: So the “big questions” in biology are like where did life come from, what causes disease, how can we fight disease, how does the brain work, etc... What are your geology questions, what are the Nobel prize targets?
ML: I’ll reel off a few, and first I’ll build on what I said about subduction zones. Subduction zones are the fundamental plate tectonics setting that drives how the earth evolves, and we don’t know how they start and there’s a lot we don’t know about how they behave.
LC: Can you tell me a little about your interest in subduction zones and what those are?
ML: So you’re from Seattle, right? Seattle is an example of a place that sits right on top of a subduction zone. Subduction zones are key components of the plate tectonic system. The idea is you have the oceanic crust and the mantle, which is called the lithosphere, underneath it. And so it is sort of sitting around on the surface of the earth and cooling off with geologic time, and eventually it gets denser and denser...
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.