Thursday, October 30, 2014

University of Maryland professor awarded Packard Fellowship for further research on Earth's inner structure

In recognition of his efforts to integrate computer science and geological studies, Vedran Lekic joined the ranks of 17 other early career U.S. scientists and engineers who were awarded a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering last week.

Lekic is working to map the United States' seismic activity in both the Earth's layers and on the surface.

Lekic’s research is based on ground vibration recordings, which he and his students use to detect the scattering of seismic waves across the North American tectonic plate. In conjunction with the National Science Foundation’s EarthScope Facility network, the data is collected from the 49 states and Puerto Rico and makes up about 3.8 million square miles, Lekic said.

From this data, Lekic is creating a map that will not only cover all 48 contiguous states, Alaska and Puerto Rico, but also dive deep into the Earth’s crust and core.
“EarthScope is kind of like our Apollo mission, but not as costly,” Lekic said

With recent technological advancements, Lekic is able to create a model of the Earth's mantle structure using seismic waves collected around the U.S.

Nearly 2 million data lines fill the screen of Vedran Lekic’s computer every day, each representing seismic waves that are detected from of the more than 1,700 seismic stations around the U.S.

Lekic has already used the seismic information to investigate why and how the crust moves over the Earth’s mantle. As of now, the deepest any machine has been able to dig was about 12 kilometers into the Earth’s crust, a minuscle fracture of the roughly 6,730 kilometers it takes to get to the Earth’s core. Using the seismic information helps geologists see the shapes and sizes of the Earth’s layers.

“What we do is comparable to how an ultrasound let’s us see through our bodies,” Lekic said. “But this lets us see through the Earth.”

As a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkley, Lekic formulated higher-resolution images of the Earth’s mantle structure, stemming from his creation of a global seismic velocity model. Not only is the model able to give geologists a better understanding of plate tectonics, but it also helps explain the movement of continental plates and their evolution, Lekic said.

Lekic and his partner, geology professor William McDonough, are "both interested in the energy that moves the tectonic plates and creates the magnetic shield around the planet,” McDonough said.

Together, they are attempting to harness that energy to create another way to build a model of the Earth.

Besides studying seismic activity, Lekic has taken an interest in researching the molecular aspects of geoscience.

Other than his seismology research contributions, Lekic is also a forerunner in the new geological field of neutrino geoscience. 
Neutrinos are a type of electrically neutral subatomic particle that are created during radioactive decay or some kinds of nuclear reactions. The particle, which was only physically detected for the first time last year, moves through every kind of object, McDonough said.

“It sounds magical; it’s like a particle that exists but you can’t really see,” Lekic said of neutrinos.
With generous funding provided by the fellowship, Lekic plans on making significant advances to his previous research.

Lekic is now one of five alumni faculty members who have received the award while at this university, and he will be given access to unrestricted funds of $875,000 over a five-year period to support his extensive research on Earth’s inner structure.

“The great thing about this fellowship is its flexibility to go chase a really good idea to wherever it leads,” said Franklin Orr, a Stanford University professor. “It is an incredibly valuable fund and gives the researchers an opportunity to take off with a good idea instead of waiting a year or more for federal money.”

Now that a large fund has been granted to his work, he hopes to spend more time plotting the seismic information in graphs and models so that he may better understand the Earth, Lekic said.

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