Beatrice Magnani and Heather DeShon

The Department of Earth Sciences passionately trains the next generation of researchers

Heather DeShon, Professor and Chair of the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, described a recent geophysics field study in California led by Beatrice Magnani and Chris Hayward.

Describe the field study in Mono Lake.

Heather DeShonThe Spring Field Studies to Mono Lake, CA was an outstanding success. We took 18 undergraduates, four graduate students, two staff, and two faculty to the field for one week. The students were taught by faculty, research staff and graduate students with a focus on collecting a range of geophysical measurements targeting heat transfer within Mono Lake from shallow magma bodies potentially associated with the Long Valley caldera system. The field studies course learning goals were directly tied to an NSF project funded through Dr. Matt Hornbach. Dr. Hornbach continued to test the SMU-designed thermal probes; Dr. Magnani and students collected lacustrine seismic data; Dr. Hayward and students deployed seismic sensors to track local earthquakes. The spring 2022 field trip was continuation of field work done in 2021 with a different set of undergraduate and graduate students. The department was able to fully support the costs through a combination of targeted endowments, new donor dollars and overhead recovery.

How does the Earth Sciences department build upon their discoveries year after year?

The best science should yield new questions so our work naturally builds over time. Faculty interests also shift over time based on their students’ interests, an interesting conundrum they may discover while teaching, or in response to funding priorities at the federal level. Earth Sciences research spans billions of years and the data we collect widely varies across the department. Dr. Zhong Lu and Dr. Xiao Yang focus on radar and optical satellite data with new satellite passes every 2-16 days, allowing them to globally track deformation and environmental conditions on the surface of the planet. Seismologists like myself, Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith and Dr. Brain Stump collect real-time motions of discrete parts of the planets with data sampled at 40-100 samples per second and continuous telemetry to SMU. If the research area is remote, we may place instruments and return for them 3 months to 1 year later. For the geologists, they may have a field season collecting rocks targeting moments in geologic time, such as major extinction events or magma emplacements, and then spend 1-2 years performing geochemical analyses. Dr. Rita Economos still works on samples from the Moon collected during the Apollo missions.

What national and/or global issues will drive future field studies?

Earth Sciences at SMU has a vision: we engage in cutting-edge fundamental and applied research that addresses societally-relevant problems facing the planet. We train the next generation of researchers, scientists and citizens to be world changers. As such, we respond to the decadal priorities set by NSF, NASA and NOAA and provide fundamental education in geology, geophysics and environmental sciences relevant to Texas and the broader region. We are both responsible for teaching core concepts underlying climate and environmental change, earth hazards, history of rocks and life through time, to the necessary scientific skills needed by the energy and mineral resource sector. We work on microscopic critters and minerals to satellite data in real-time through deep time.

Beatrice Magnani, Professor, Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, teaches courses in global plate tectonics, exploration seismology and seismic interpretation, as well as general introductory courses in earth systems, both the undergraduate and graduate level. She is a geoscientist who studies continents using man-made seismic waves, a method known as “controlled-source seismology."

Beatrice MagnaniWhat is currently driving your research?

In a general sense, the ultimate goal of my research is to understand and quantify the processes that lead to the formation and deformation of continents. Questions such as how does continental crust form, why do some continents defy the tenets of plate tectonics by deforming far away from plate boundaries, and can climate influence tectonic deformation of the continental crust continue to push me forward.

Describe what fascinates you about your research interests.

Processes spanning different timescales, from a few billion years marking the age of a continent, to the rupture of an earthquake that occurs in a few milliseconds are fascinating. Also, continents provide humanity with a place to live and resources essential to our survival, such as energy and water. Their structure and tectonic evolution affect the environment at their surface, the resources held within them and the hazards to which we are exposed. In a way, our survival depends on our understanding of the continents we live on. Continental crust is exposed and accessible to exploration, and we have been observing it for centuries. And yet, some basic, fundamental questions about the ground we walk on every day still elude us. How does continental crust form? Why do some continents deform far away from plate boundaries, defying the tenets of plate tectonics? Can climate control tectonic deformation of the continental crust? My students and I study the natural world to answer these questions, using a variety of methods, both in the lab and in the field. Our work takes us to the waters of the Mississippi river, to discover the faults quiescent under the sediment of the river valley, or to the glacial valleys of Patagonia, where we study the interaction between the slow evolution of tectonic plates and the fluid, rapidly changing atmosphere, and climate. Here we are learning that climate and tectonics are intimately linked, as the glacier and ice evolution guides erosion and sediment accumulation, and in turn, tectonic deformation and seismicity.