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    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

The forefront of science research is not always predictable

Anna Kaiser is a seismologist at GNS Science.

Left: Anna in the field. (Image: GNS Science)

How do you describe what you do?

I’m part of the seismology team at GNS Science. As seismologists, we use physics to understand the earthquake process. My particular focus is to understand and ultimately predict the severity of ground shaking. This depends on the type of earthquake itself, but also importantly, on the local ground conditions below your feet. Earthquake waves can be strongly amplified or modified in the very top few hundreds of metres of the earth due to strong material contrasts found at these depths. Furthermore, the shape of the topography at the surface can focus earthquake waves and lead to more intense shaking.

In practice, this means I have spent time analysing seismic data from recent earthquakes around New Zealand to better understand key factors influencing ground shaking. More recently, I have been working with colleagues to predict what ground motions we could expect in future earthquakes. This sort of information can ultimately be helpful in guiding earthquake-resistant building design. My work also includes on-call ‘earthquake duty’ where we monitor on-going seismicity and provide rapid information to the public and civil defence in the event of a significant earthquake or tsunami.

What led to your particular interest in geology?

I’ve always loved the outdoors and getting out to some remote places where the natural landforms are truly stunning. In these places, you can’t help but wonder how the earth has been shaped over time. At university, I began by taking pure maths and physics courses before taking more applied geophysics courses in my third year. Geophysics was a great way to use my mathematical background to solve tangible problems of the real Earth, combining practical field work with analytical problem solving. I took a couple of geology courses at university as well, and I am always learning more on that front through my current work. As a geophysicist though, I can’t claim to be an expert on geology and may knock on the door of my colleagues to draw on their excellent expertise in a particular region.

What do you like most about your work?

My work allows me to keep learning and understanding new things every day. Every now and then there will be a ‘eureka’ moment where a piece of the puzzle comes together. It’s especially rewarding to feel like you are working for the advancement of science for the public good.

My work as a scientist has a lot of variety, starting from crafting the initial research idea through carrying out the work and then communicating the results to the research community and the public. I also enjoy the large degree of independence that allows me to manage many aspects of a project as I go along. At the same time, many minds make lighter work. I enjoy working with a great bunch of scientists both at GNS and overseas, each contributing different insights and expertise to solve the puzzle. It’s also exciting to be part of the international seismological community and attend conferences where the newest results from around the world are presented.

Were you interested in science at school, and what was your academic path after school?

Yes, I was always interested in science at school, but especially in mathematics and foreign languages. When I left school, I took both science and languages at Victoria University in Wellington and completed a BA majoring in German and a BSc majoring in geophysics and mathematics. Although it took extra time, doing courses in the arts probably helped develop my writing skills and provided some balance and variety. After completing my Master’s in geophysics at Victoria, I applied for a PhD position at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland in near-surface geophysics. This was a great opportunity to develop my science career and also to keep up my German language at the same time. The geophysics department at ETH alone included well over a hundred people working in many different fields and introduced me to new research topics as well as fellow students and colleagues from around the world. After my PhD, I moved back to Wellington to take up a job as a seismologist with GNS Science – as it turned out, just one month before the start of the Canterbury earthquake sequence, which has kept us busy ever since.

How do you think your job might change over the next five or ten years?

Good question! The forefront of science research is not always predictable. However, in the next five to ten years, I hope we will make big strides in ground motion prediction and see this being integrated into earthquake design practice. Really useful advances are also being made in understanding the processes around ‘mega-quakes’ on the subduction interface. For me personally, much effort has gone into understanding and learning from the Canterbury earthquakes, as well as looking at potential ground shaking in the Wellington region. Other regions of New Zealand may come into focus in future. Most of all, I expect to keep learning!  

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