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Finding fault: USU geologist probes earthquake history of Utah's Wasatch Fault

February 14, 2017

LOGAN, UTAH, USA - Unlocking the geologic past of Utah's mighty Wasatch Fault and its earthquake history, requires a zoomed-in, nanoscale pursuit clues left over millions of years, says Utah State University geologist Alexis Ault. And what better detectives to assist her in the task than energetic youngsters, whose curiosity fuels Ault's enthusiasm.

"I'm so excited about the research, but I also have a passion and fire to explore this work with middle school students," says the assistant professor in USU's Department of Geology. "We have a lot of science before us and this is a very real and challenging opportunity."

Ault is a 2017 recipient of a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development 'CAREER' Award from the National Science Foundation. The NSF's highly competitive grant program for junior faculty, CAREER awards recognize demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and the integration of education and research. Ault's award provides a five-year grant of $631,000.

"When an earthquake occurs, the primary byproduct is heat," says Ault, who joined USU's faculty in 2014. "Each event imparts a distinct textural and thermochronologic signature on the fault rocks."

The Wasatch Fault provides an accessible natural laboratory for Utah's residents, including students at Perry, Utah's Promontory School for Expeditionary Learning. Ault began working with teachers and students from the public charter school about a year ago.

"Middle school is a time when students form their 'STEM identity,'" she says. "It's important they have role models, who can instill a passion for science that will grow. Providing field and lab broadens their horizons by helping them understand how science works and the role of technology in our everyday lives."

Technological developments students will experience first-hand are USU's scanning electron microscope in the university's Microscopy Core Facility and the USTAR Nanofab Facility at the University of Utah.

"This CAREER research provides a new window into processes that cause earthquakes in the Wasatch Fault down to the nano-scale," Ault says. "These middle schoolers will be participating in cutting-edge research relevant to their daily lives."

To pursue this project, she's assembled a team of interdisciplinary experts, including researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and multiple universities across the country. Graduate student Rob McDermott, a USU Presidential Doctoral Research Fellow, provided pilot data for the project. David Feldon and Colby Tofel-Grehl, faculty members in USU's Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, will assist in instructional and learning assessment efforts. Rock mechanics experts from Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania will guide students in rock deformation experiments and earthquake simulations in the lab. Collaborations will also continue with the Arizona Radiogenic Helium Dating Laboratory at the University of Arizona.

"None of this happens in a vacuum," Ault says. "We're pushing the intellectual and educational boundaries for these young students, as well as ourselves, and that's what our mission as scientists and citizens is all about."

Utah State University

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