Leiph Preston at the Epicenter

Leiph Preston, who just started a postdoc at the University of Nevada, Reno, is lead author on a paper published in the 14 November issue of Science magazine. Based on his graduate work at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, the work published in Science reports that the potential magnitude of deep earthquakes in the central Puget Sound region is determined by just how deep they are. Quakes that are confined to the uppermost region of the Juan de Fuca plate--the crust--have an upper magnitude of about 7, while quakes extending to the mantle level below the crust could have magnitudes as high as 8 on the Richter scale--30 times more energy than a magnitude 7 quake.

It's fairly rare to find a Science paper with a first author who's a graduate student, so we took the opportunity to contact Preston and ask him some questions about the project, how the work got done, and what his role was. We also asked him about his experience working with his adviser. Finally, we asked him how well prepared he felt for a career in science. Did he have the skills--grant writing, paper writing, lab management--that he would eventually be required? Here's what he said:

When I first went to grad school at UW, I knew virtually nothing about geophysics--my background had been in physics. Thus, at first, I honestly had no idea what to do or how to do it--that's what grad school is for. The last couple years or so, I would say that I had a decision-making role in the project, as well.

My role changed as I progressed in my grad career. The original vision was not mine at all. The experiment from which my data derived had been planned well before I started grad school. My adviser asked me if I would be interested in looking at these wide-angle reflections that had been observed in the data. At the end, I had a major role in deciding what to do and in interpreting our results. I certainly still relied on my collaborators' experience. I would say we were a team.

The new tools I developed were primarily computer programs that I modified from others or wrote myself. These included the programs that took travel-time data and found a model that suitably fit the data. My main contribution here was the addition of code that determined the geometry of a reflector surface from travel times of wide-angle reflection data. Other tools I developed were for visualizing the 3D models that came out of the inversion programs. We spent quite a bit of time discussing error analysis and resolution issues as well as the interpretation.

I have to say that everyone I worked with treated me with respect and was more than willing to help if I ran into a problem or listen to any ideas I had. I could not have asked for a better adviser than Ken Creager. He was helpful, supportive, resourceful, and just in general an all around nice guy.

I've only just started at Reno a couple weeks ago. So far, I enjoy it. Nevada is seismically and tectonically active, but in a completely different way from Cascadia. Part of my research here will roughly parallel the work I did at UW--developing a high-resolution 3D structural model of the region--but with enough differences to keep it interesting. There are also a couple other minor projects I may get involved in that are completely new to me and offer the chance of broadening my horizons.

I've had a little experience in writing grants, but I plan on acquiring most of that skill here as a postdoc. I am still a novice at paper writing, and again hope to gain most of my experience here. I don't really know anything about running a lab, even though I've had some experience organizing a very small-scale experiment.

I'm still trying to decide what path I would like best, since there are pluses and minuses to all of them. My plan right now is to keep as many options open as I can.

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