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Emily Van Ark

MIT/WHOI Joint Program, Geology and Geophysics


Department:
Geology & Geophysics
Advisor: Jian Lin
Research interest: Marine geophysics: mantle dynamics, gravity, hotspots
Expected graduation: 2006
Contact: emilyva@mit.edu

No ship will take geology and geophysics student Emily Van Ark to the hot, dense bowels of the Earth. But she can see what is happening there using satellite and ocean floor data to complete her graduate work with the MIT/WHOI Joint Program.

Emily, 26, researches the behavior of hotspots, which form deep within the planet and emerge on the surface in places like Hawaii, where she conducted her research. To see how these hotspots function over time, Emily studied seafloor topographic and marine sediment data, as well as data about the age of the ocean crust. She combined this with information collected by orbiting satellites that detect variations in the force of gravity across the Earth's surface.

When the material beneath the satellite is denser, the force of gravity is stronger and pulls the satellite closer to the Earth. When the material beneath the satellite loses density, the pull of gravity loses strength and the satellite rises higher above the planet.

"By measuring these minute changes in the height of the satellite and analyzing them creatively, we can build up a picture of interior of the Earth," Emily said, adding that she hopes her work will either verify or debunk assumptions about hotspots.

"People have long believed that hotspots behave uniformly over time, that they always have the same amount of material coming out and that they are always located in the same place," she said. If the hotspots turn out to move and change their strength over time, she said this challenges the picture of what the Earth's interior looks like and how it behaves.

Emily traces her interest in the science field to her suburban Detroit high school. The spark came not in a laboratory, but during a discussion with an English teacher.

"We were debating a point in the book "Jude the Obscure" and neither of us could be definitively right," said Emily. "I decided I wanted to be able to test my ideas against the reality of the natural world, where it was possible to say whether the idea was correct."

Science, she said she has discovered during her three years in the Joint Program, has its own gray areas. Still, her hotspot research has been rewarding. In the fall of 2002, she won the outstanding student paper award at the American Geophysical Union Meeting for her research with WHOI advisor Jian Lin.

Emily began considering a career in geophysics and geology during undergraduate science classes at Northwestern University. She applied for graduate schools, but delayed entry until 2001 and spent two years in a West African secondary school teaching math and science.

"I wanted a different perspective on life than the typical suburban American kid," she said of her decision to work in a rural Ghana with the Peace Corps.

Emily, who is in the midst of preparing for her general exam in September, said she is developing her thesis proposal, and is also studying the spreading structure of the Juan de Fuca Ridge with her second WHOI advisor, Robert Detrick.

She is still mapping her future career plans, and said they will likely include teaching, research and geology.

"What's most exciting to me is trying to figure out new things about how the Earth works," she said. "I love it when you can say, 'ha, nobody knew about that before.'"

-Amy E. Nevala

Originally published: August 1, 2003