Dr. Elizabeth Cochran, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was named one of President Obama’s recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.
Cochran, who came to work for the USGS in June after a career as an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, is an accomplished seismologist. She has made important contributions to the understanding of earthquake physics and earthquake triggering, the physical properties and geometry of earthquake fault zones and their evolution after earthquakes, and to the development of a new method of earthquake monitoring using low-cost earthquake sensors, called the Quake-Catcher Network (QCN). This network allows scientists to monitor earthquakes and quantify ground shaking with unprecedented spatial resolution through data gathered from citizen volunteers.
“It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers — careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding but also invaluable to the Nation,” President Obama said. “That so many of them are also devoting time to mentoring and other forms of community service speaks volumes about their potential for leadership, not only as scientists but as model citizens.”
The Presidential early career awards embody the high priority the Obama Administration places on producing outstanding scientists and engineers to advance the Nation’s goals, tackle grand challenges, and contribute to the American economy.
“It is an incredible honor to receive this award, and it is nice that it recognizes the combination of research and education,” said Cochran, who was nominated for the award by the National Science Foundation. “I am very proud and a little stunned.”
“Dr. Cochran’s work on next generation sensor networks is exactly what the United States needs to help enable earthquake early warning,” said USGS Director Dr. Marcia McNutt. “As was clearly demonstrated by the recent Japanese experience, even a few seconds of warning before an earthquake can reduce the loss of life and property. Dr. Cochran’s innovative research will help make the nation safer from this natural hazard.”
The QCN, a collaborative research project between Cochran and Jesse Lawrence of Stanford University, uses computers that are installed with software and special sensors to record moderate-to-large earthquakes and aftershocks. Citizen volunteers have the sensors installed externally to their desktop computers or internally to their laptop computers. These computers become seismic stations by providing the physical infrastructure, computer, internet connection, power, and the location and measurement of seismic activity. The computers are then networked using distributed computing techniques that allow scientists to monitor the sensors and retrieve earthquake data automatically.
“The Quake-Catcher Network is a way to involve the public in scientific data collection in high-risk earthquake and aftershock zones in the United States and around the world and to collect seismic data in non-traditional ways,” said Cochran.
By using this sensor-driven process, a great number of seismic data can be processed in a short period of time and produce nearly instantaneous detection and characterization of earthquakes. The first release of the software was in Reno, Nev., in April 2008. A few people from the area signed up to get the software, just in time to record a swarm of earthquakes that hit in June of that year.
“When the swarm of earthquakes struck Reno, the information from these citizen volunteers enabled us to test our system, and from that, we learned that the sensors and data communication were working correctly,” said Cochran. “For this set of earthquakes, we had some of the closest seismic stations to the swarm. We had records of those earthquakes that looked like typical seismograms. I was really excited that it worked. It was really fun.”
Since then, volunteers have popped up in just about every state in the United States and across the world. After the magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck Chile in early 2010, Cochran and her team enlisted 100 volunteers in Chile to hook up the sensors to their computers. When the aftershocks kept occurring, the instrumentation provided invaluable information to scientists and proved the value of the QCN.
“In the case of Chile, we could get estimates of magnitude and locations in about 20 to 30 seconds after earthquake started,” said Cochran. “We found we can actually do well recording earthquakes this way, and eventually we hope this is a way to augment existing seismic networks to provide more precise early earthquake warning.”
The data Cochran and her team gathered from Chile was especially valuable in analyzing small scale ground shaking — how it is different in one location versus a half a mile away.
“There is a lot of variation in ground shaking, even in small scales,” said Cochran. “We were able to generate our own Quake-Catcher Network ShakeMaps, or what seismologists call microzonation, where you can examine specific areas for earthquake hazards. This information can provide critical data to feed back into building codes and to help determine where critical infrastructure such as power plants, hospitals, water lines and transportation facilities should be built.”
When the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck New Zealand in September 2010, Cochran and her team deployed 180 sensors in the area. A paper on the results of the data is expected out this fall.
“We are in the middle of demonstrating that the data from these sensor stations in New Zealand show the same amplitude and waveform characteristics as do other strong motion sensors in the area and is sufficient enough quality to produce reliable results,” said Cochran.
In early September 2011, Cochran and her team set out on an ambitious goal: to install 500 sensor stations in the San Francisco Bay area, a high-risk earthquake location. Volunteers need to have a high speed Internet connection; a computer, about 5 years old or less that runs on a Windows or Macintosh operating system with a spare USB port to which the sensor can be connected; and, a small space about the size of a post-it note for mounting the sensor. Information for those interested in volunteering or learning more about the QCN is available online.
“I came up with the idea for the Quake-Catcher Network by playing around on a Mac laptop, and my husband pointed out that you could download a widget that would allow you to see the real-time output from the sensor,” said Cochran. “I downloaded the widget and was seeing output from tapping I was doing on the computer, and it dawned on me that if it picked up this movement, it would probably pick up earthquake movements. I also knew about distributed computing that allows people to donate their unused CPU processing time to scientific projects and thought that combining the low cost sensors with distributed computing would be a perfect way to gather data from moderate to large earthquakes at very little cost. I discussed it with my colleague Jesse Lawrence who said, ‘That’s the coolest idea I ever heard,’ and then we pursued and received a grant from the National Science Foundation to start it up.”
Cochran’s research is fundamental to the mission of the USGS to continue to innovate the recording of weak and strong ground motions necessary to accurately locate earthquakes, to study their rupture process, and to map the variations in the strong ground motions caused by the local soil conditions and the details of the earthquake rupture process.
“I am really excited that the Quake-Catcher Network is moving forward and has continued to be successful,” said Cochran. Since its inception in 2008, the QCN has gained academic partners from the University of California-Berkeley, California Institute of Technology, University of California-San Diego and the University of Delaware.
After receiving her PhD in geophysics and space physics from UCLA in 2005, Cochran served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography until the end of 2006, when she joined UC Riverside in 2007 as an assistant professor in earth sciences, supervising both graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. She joined the USGS in June 2011. Her accomplishments have been recognized by her receiving the NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award in 2010 and the Geological Society of America Subaru Outstanding Woman in Science in 2006 for the scientific impact of her work on the geosciences. She is the author or co-author of 21 peer-reviewed journal publications, 9 as a first author, and has a Scopus H-index of 7. Her first-author papers have been published in prestigious journals Science, Journal of Geophysical Research, Geophysical Research Letters, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Seismological Research Letters, and Geology. She has also played prominent roles in professional organizations, including as the co-chair of the seismology discipline for the Southern California Earthquake Center since 2009 and as a member of the IRIS Data Management System Standing Committee from 2008 to 2010.
The Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers was established by President Clinton in 1996 and are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach. Cochran was one of 94 recipients this year.
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