Monday, August 31, 2015

Adventures in Science

Pnina in Uganda
By Chris Eboch. First published in the enchantment magazine by NMRECA, March 2013

When many people think of New Mexico – if they think of it at all – they either think of Santa Fe/Taos artists, or they imagine the Wild West. But New Mexico also has a long history in the sciences. (Most famously, the atomic bomb was developed in Los Alamos and tested near Alamogordo.) That history continues at research labs and universities around the state, especially at the small but respected New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.


Many people picture a certain stereotype when they hear the word “scientist” – male, antisocial, and stuck in a lab. Pnina Miller and Mouse Reusch of Socorro, New Mexico, counteract the clich√©.

Both work at IRIS PASSCAL, the short name for The Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) Program for Array Seismic Studies of the Continental Lithosphere (PASSCAL) Instrument Center at New Mexico Tech. In layperson terms, they work with scientists studying the interior of the Earth.

While in a PhD program, Pnina researched jobs and discovered PASSCAL. She got a job with the manufacturer of some of the equipment seismologists use to record earthquakes. “I knew I wanted to get to PASSCAL, and through the manufacturer was my path.” At PASSCAL, she says, “I could go into the field and do fun research and play with the equipment. It was absolutely perfect for me. I was born to do this.”

Mouse in Tan.zania
In 2007, she met Mouse, who says, “We were similarly scientifically inclined, similar age, similar interests, fun, loved field work, and I spent many, many hours asking her about PASSCAL.” Mouse came to PASSCAL at the first opportunity.

Despite their similarities, their jobs are different. “I do a little bit of almost everything,” Pnina says. “I go to the field and support our Principal Investigators (PIs) in their research, I do logistics, which means I schedule the equipment. I do a lot of training sessions now. I supervise the two warehouse guys and count inventory. My job has changed over the nine years I’ve been there, so now I’m more of a supervisory role. The last thing that I do, and the main thing that I used to do, is evaluate the sensors and test them on our seismic testing piers.”

“I do what she doesn’t,” Mouse says. “I’m in the data group, working with the researchers that Pnina trained to collect data. They’re required by National Science Foundation guidelines to make their data publicly available. I help them archive it in a consistent and standardized format. Then it becomes available for anyone in the world to use. The place that we work really does help further seismology around the world.”

“Our PIs study a lot of different things,” Pnina explains. “We deploy in different kind of places: volcanoes, glaciers, plains, rift valleys, mountainous regions.”

Mouse adds, “They study from the upper tens of meters of the crust, things that are very shallow subsurface, to things that extend to 3000 kilometers down to the mantle and core.” One group in Africa was studying elephants, trying to determine if their stomping was random or they were sending messages. Others study why earthquakes happen, trying to better gauge hazards. “For volcanoes, they’re usually studying the interior structure,” Pnina says. “They study changes in ice sheets, which can be tied to climate change. They study how glaciers move structurally.”

Working in Antarctica
A World of Work

To support this science, PASSCAL employees may travel around the world to install or maintain instruments. Pnina’s international travel destinations include Spain, Morocco, Antarctica, Tanzania, Uganda, Jordan, Canada, Costa Rica, and Venezuela. “Through all the places, the people I work with in geosciences are very excited about it and want to learn more,” she says. “The PIs are really fun and friendly. You do the work, but afterwards, there’s some opportunity to tour around.” She worked with a local man in Morocco. “He brought me to his house with his family and we had a big dinner after a long field day. You get to see things tourist don’t necessarily get to see.”

With PASSCAL, Mouse has been to Antarctica and Botswana. For other seismic experiments, she’s been to Cameroon, Tanzania, South Africa, and Chile. “I enjoy the adventure, meeting new people, trying new foods, new cultures, frequent-flier mile status,” she says.

Understanding the Earth

Besides the excitement of travel, Mouse notes the value of the work itself. She worked on a project in Chile one month after the big 2010 earthquake. “A lot of the science that I did in grad school seemed kind of esoteric. Why do you care about the mantle structure beneath Cameroon, West Africa? But this was recording aftershocks. We were in Concepci√≥n, where the 15-story building had fallen over, the bridges were damaged, and people were displaced. It felt very meaningful, worthwhile, a reassurance of the importance of the work we do. We are contributing to this great body of knowledge and understanding of the Earth.”

Pnina advises young scientists, “If there’s something you want to explore, head in that direction. You never know what you might discover.”

Mouse adds, “There are so many mysteries out there, in the ground, above the ground, in the water, in space. You need imagination and curiosity. I have fun nearly every day.”


As these women prove, science doesn’t just take place in a lab, so there are opportunities for the most adventurous spirit.

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