Dr. Inés  Cifuentes - Seismologist
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Imagine that you and your friends are outside on a summer day playing soccer. It is so hot that the air is thick and still. After the game you realize that there is a slight breeze and the leaves on the trees around the field are beginning to rustle. The air becomes a little cooler. Suddenly, there is a clap of thunder and big fat raindrops start falling. As you are running for cover, you shout to your friends, “This storm came out of nowhere!!” …Or did it?

If you think back, you can see tell tale signs that a rainstorm was coming: the breeze picked up, the temperature went down, and the quality of the air changed. These signs are all ways to predict a change in weather. Noticing what causes a change in weather is similar to how a scientist conducts an experiment because both are based on the powers of observation, prediction, and analyzing patterns seen over time. Nowadays we know a lot about predicting the weather and we can watch the weather forecast on television every night. But nobody knows when an earthquake will strike.

On May 22, 1960 the largest ever recorded earthquake struck off the coast of Chile. It was 9.5 on the Richter scale. Most earthquakes last for a few seconds, but this one lasted for almost five minutes and even caused tidal waves(tsunamis) in Hawaii, which is almost 7,000 miles away! My family and I were living in Chile at the time. Though we lived far away from where most of the damage was, I remember the experience vividly.

An interesting thing about the Chilean earthquake of 1960 was that a strange rumbling had been observed on an earthquake recording machine at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena fifteen minutes before the earthquake struck. As a graduate student in seismology at Columbia University in New York City, I wanted to study if there was a cause and effect relationship between these two events. The first step of any science experiment is to think of a hypothesis, which is a statement that a scientist wants to investigate. My hypothesis was that the rumbling recorded in California was connected to the earthquake in Chile. The next step in an experiment is to do research and make observations. From their observations, scientists are able to notice a pattern, which is when the same things bring about the same result. It is when these patterns appear again and again, that a scientist can prove their hypothesis true. After years of observing records of the Chilean earthquake from all around the world, I was able to find similar patterns in the records and show that the occurrence in Pasadena was related to the earthquake in Chile. I hope that my work will contribute to the research being done on how to predict earthquakes.

Like a science experiment, my life has also had patterns of cause and effect that have led me to where I am today. For example, growing up in Latin America gave me a love for my Latin heritage. This helped cultivate my desire to live and work there so that I could give back to the community. My early interest in science, particularly astronomy, developed into my work in seismology because I felt that by studying earthquakes I might be able to help people in Latin America. The results of experiments are not always what you predict, and instead of living in Latin America, I now live in Washington D.C. instead. However, my work with the Carnegie Academy for Science Education still reflects my love of science and community. My program teaches science and mathematics to elementary school students and teachers in the D.C. public schools. Working with kids and teachers reminds me everyday that science is exciting and fun! 

 

 


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