February 14, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Jenny McGuire is one of several scientists featured in a documentary that WyomingPBS will air twice in February. The documentary is part of a series called “Main Street, Wyoming.” The episode, “Natural Trap Cave,” is about a pitfall cave in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming. The cave harbors fossils from 150,000 years ago, which scientists have been collecting for research.

“Inside the cave is like a refrigerator,” McGuire says. “The temperature is 40 degrees all year round, so everything preserves beautifully.” In the cave are layers of fossils dating back from 150,000 years to recent times, giving McGuire the opportunity to study how a community changes over long periods.

McGuire is an assistant professor with joint appointment in the Schools of Biological Sciences and of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. She is using the fossils to understand what types of species fill ecological niches after extinction events and how long it takes populations to normalize after a major transition. Similar extinctions of large mammals are occurring today in Africa and South Asia, according to McGuire. She is using the data to determine what to expect not only from specific extinctions, but also from major ecological disruptions occurring worldwide.

In between field visits to Natural Trap Cave, McGuire outsources the fossil work through Fossil Wednesdays. On Wednesday afternoons, 3-5 PM, during the semester, McGuire’s lab is open to all who are interested in hunting for fossils in the rock samples she brought back from Natural Trap Cave.

“Folks come to Fossil Wednesdays to experience the excitement of making new discoveries, accompanied by dramatic soundtracks playing in the background,” McGuire says. “At the same time, it is a relaxed atmosphere for chatting and really getting your mind off the stresses of the week.”

Through Fossil Wednesdays, McGuire has brought the thrill of discovery-based biology to engineers, business majors, and staff members from across campus and beyond. She has also trained K-12 school teachers to bring the excitement of hypothesis-driven discovery to their students.

The WyomingPBS crew visited the cave in July 2017, according to McGuire. “They filmed us inside the cave and did individual interviews with several of us outside the cave.” In the preview provided by WyomingPBS, McGuire is on camera at the end, holding a fossil.  In the documentary itself, McGuire first appears at around 5:15.  

WyomingPBS will air the episode on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 9 PM and on Friday, Feb. 23, at 10 PM. It is at wyomingpbs.org and on WyomingPBS’s YouTube Channel after the broadcasts.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This item was revised on Feb. 20, 2018. The documentary was added from YouTube. 

February 16, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Spring in Atlanta is just a few weeks away, and with it arrives science festival time. The 2018 Atlanta Science Festival (2018ASF) shifts the annual festivities to fifth gear with two major innovations: two weeks of science fun – March 9-24, 2018 – instead of one and the designation of an honorary chair.

“The festival has grown tremendously and has become a mainstay in the city,” says Meisa Salaita, cofounder and codirector of the Atlanta Science Festival. “It was time to expand it and to showcase the important people who have helped make this dream a reality. With a high-profile event to launch the festival, we have a highly visible platform for an honorary chair to speak and be recognized for their association with the festival.”

The festival’s board of directors selected College of Sciences Dean and Sutherland Chair Paul M. Goldbart to serve as inaugural honorary chair.

“Dean Goldbart exemplifies the spirit of curiosity that we hope to kindle among all festival-goers,” Salaita says. “He has championed the festival since its inception; he is a strong advocate for science education, public engagement with science, and scientists’ engagement with the public.”

“I’m delighted and honored to participate in this year’s festival in this novel capacity,” Goldbart says.  “With astronomer Carl Sagan, I see science as one of humanity’s candles in the dark, furnishing us with bright light that helps guide us to a better tomorrow, through the improvements in medicine, computing, architecture, and other technologies that greater scientific understanding brings.

“I admire and applaud the Atlanta Science Festival for bringing science to the Atlanta community in engaging, enthralling, and empowering ways that say to the not-yet-scientists, ‘Come on in. This is for you. What do you think?’ And for showing that science is fun, that there is joy and fulfillment in uncovering the workings of the natural world.”

By doing these things, Goldbart says, the Atlanta Science Festival is “helping ensure a bright future for science, drawing in future scientific talent from all quarters, as we must, as well as building support from our fellow citizens, who benefit from science and also decide how much stock society places in science and the rational, data-driven approach to problem solving.”

As Goldbart waits in excited anticipation for the 2018ASF to commence, he thanks the companies, organizations, institutions, and especially the people driving the festival’s success. “Your contributions, whether measured in days, calories, or dollars – all are important, all are treasured.”

[T]he Atlanta Science Festival is “helping ensure a bright future for science, drawing in future scientific talent from all quarters...as well as building support from our fellow citizens, who benefit from science...."

Georgia Tech participation in 2018ASF is stronger than ever, with two new events from the College of Sciences.

Following are events taking place in the Georgia Tech campus, sponsored or presented by Georgia Tech units, or featuring Georgia Tech faculty, students, and staff:

  • Friday, March 9, 7-8:30 PM Rise Up Robots, featuring introductory remarks by College of Sciences Dean Paul Goldbart as the festival’s honorary chair, a robotic jokester, a robotic marimba player, and a bionic arm; Ferst Center for the Performing Arts at Georgia Tech, 349 Ferst Dr NW, Atlanta, 30332; admission $15; purchase tickets
  • Saturday, March 10, 10-11:30 AM Stem Gems: Giving Girls Role Models In Stem Careers, featuring Georgia Tech alumnae Becky Yao and Marissa Connor; Goizueta Business School at Emory University, 1300 Clifton Rd, Room 234, Atlanta, 30322; admission $5 (free for parents attending with children); purchase tickets
  • NEW! Saturday, March 10, 12-4 PM Taste of Science, featuring live demonstrations, food samples, and fascinating facts that tie science, culture, and food together; hosted by College of Sciences’ Ed Greco, Michael Evans, Jennifer Leavey, Enid Steinbart, and their students in the STEMcomm VIP class; Kessler Campanile at Georgia Tech, 350 Ferst Dr NW, Atlanta, 30332; admission $5 (free for students with ID); purchase tickets on site
  • Sunday, March 11, 3-4:30 PM, The Golden Record, featuring aerial arts, modern dance, and live music exploring the themes in Carl Sagan’s time capsule called The Golden Record – two phonograph records of sounds and images – which Sagan intended for future life forms so they can one day look back upon our existence; sponsored by Georgia Tech Astrobiology; The Space, 4620-A S Atlanta Rd SE, Atlanta, 30339; admission $18 ($12 for students); purchase tickets
  • Tuesday, March 13, 7-8:30 PM, The Power of Connected, a Honeywell Sponsored Panel & Customer Experience Tours, featuring CEISMC Executive Director Lizanne DeStefano and Georgia Tech Research Scientist Bill Eason; Honeywell Atlanta Software Center, The Event Center, Suite 600, 715 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta, 30308; free admission with advance registration; register in advance
  • Saturday, March 17, 9 AM-12 PM, K.I.D.S. Club, a CEISMC event where kids can explore hands-on STEM activities, work with LEGO Mindstorms EV3 in LEGO Robotics, or create their own mobile app or game; Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons at Georgia Tech, 266 Fourth St, NW, Atlanta, 30332; admission $45-$65 per child depending on age; purchase tickets
  • Saturday, March 17, 9 AM-2:30 PM, Latino College & STEM Fair, a CEISMC event featuring bilingual workshops, hands-on activities for the entire family, a college fair, a majors fair, and an inspirational panel with Latino college students, parents, professors, and other professionals; Georgia Tech Student Center, 350 Ferst Drive, Atlanta, 30332; free admission
  • Saturday, March 17, 11 AM-2 PM, Nerdy Derby, a CEISMC event where participants kids build their own cars and race them down a 30-foot track; M. R. Hollis Innovation Academy, 225 Griffin St NW Atlanta GA 30314, Atlanta, 30314; free admission
  • Saturday, March 17, 11 AM-3 PM, G4C Game Jam, a CEISMC event where participants create digital games about issues affecting their communities; Historic Academy of Medicine, 875 W. Peachtree St, NW, Atlanta, 30309; free admission with advance registration; register in advance
  • NEW! Saturday, March 17 12:30-3:30 PM; Sunday, March 18 12-2 AM, Silver Scream Science Spookshow, featuring a screening of “It Came from Outer Space” with live theater and music by Leucine Zipper (aka Jennifer Leavey) and the Zinc Fingers; Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306; admission $10 adults, $7 children 12 years and under; purchase tickets on site
  • Sunday, March 18, 1-2:30 PM, 3:30-5 PM, Science of the Circus, hosted by the Georgia Tech Graduate Association of Physicists; participants can immerse themselves in circus arts while learning basic scientific principles that make amazing feats of strength and balance possible; Circus School of Atlanta, 575 Boulevard SE, Atlanta, 30312; admission $10 early bird, $15 regular; purchase tickets
  • Wednesday, March 21, 7-10 PMEvolution Animated, featuring Jon Perry, creator of the hugely popular Stated Clearly animations; presented by the Georgia Tech-based NSF/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution; Monday Night Garage, 933 Lee St NW, Atlanta, 30310; free admission
  • Wednesday, March 21, 7:30-9:30 PM, Science Improv, featuring Georgia Tech mathematician Lew Lefton; Whole World Improv Theater, 1216 Spring Street, Atlanta, 30309; admission $10 regular, $5 students; purchase tickets
  • Thursday, March 22, 7-10 PM, Science Trivia, featuring rousing rounds testing your knowledge of science trivia; presented by the Georgia-Tech based NSF/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution; Manuel's Tavern, 602 North Highland Ave. NE, Atlanta, 30307
  • Thursday & Friday, March 22-23, 8 AM-3 PM, STEAM Leadership Conference, a CEISMC event for STEAM decision makers, featuring two days of interactive, educational sessions, STEAM-focused work groups, inspiring TED talks, and panel discussions with experts; Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons at Georgia Tech, 266 Fourth St, NW, Atlanta, 30332; admission $200; purchase tickets

Festivities culminate at the Exploration Expo on March 24, 11 AM- 4 PM in Piedmont Park. 

Complete information about 2018ASF is available at https://atlantasciencefestival.org/.

February 28, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

“Supporting women, especially the brilliant and courageous colleagues I met in this program, is one way to help Georgia Tech realize authentic inclusive excellence in its leadership ranks,” said Maureen Rouhi, director of communications for the College of Sciences.

The second cohort of 23 women leaders were recently honored at the Leading Women@Tech closing ceremony for completing the program. Honorees included Joeleen Akin, Donna Ashley, Marisa Atencio, Lori Brown, Dian Chung, Carla Gilson, Amy Herron, Jennifer Hirsch, Tiffiny Hughes-Troutman, Maria Hunter, Cynthia Jennings, Keona Lewis, Connie Masters, Patrice Miles, Cynthia Moore, Susan Morrell, Pamela Rary, Mia Reini, Maureen Rouhi, Jana Stone, Kimberly Toatley, Michelle Tullier, and Kate Wasch.

With support from the Office of the President, Institute Diversity launched the Leading Women@Tech program to facilitate women’s professional development and academic and administrative leadership, and to build a community of leaders across the Institute that will advance a culture of inclusive excellence.

“Two of the major program goals include facilitating participants’ professional development and creating a larger community of women colleagues,” remarked Julie Ancis, associate vice president for Institute Diversity and co-director of the program. “Continuing to invest in programs like Leading Women@Tech is imperative to fostering equity and inclusion, and we are grateful for the Instititute’s commitment. It was gratifying to witness the two cohorts come together at different points last year and build stronger relationships with each other.”

Institute Diversity Vice President Archie Ervin concurred. “We have many opportunities to improve the gender balances among the leadership ranks at Georgia Tech, but the question is, ‘Do we have the courage and will to do that?’ Through this program, we’re saying that we can do better, and we’re committed to doing better.”

Over 10 months, 10 program faculty, comprised of national and international thought leaders and expert coaches, facilitated sessions or provided individual leadership coaching in the areas of efficacy, emotional intelligence, strengths-based leadership, intercultural communication, mindful leadership, multiple role management, career vision, and other aspects of navigating the complexities of work-life integration.

According to survey responses, 100 percent of participants thought the program was relevant, informative, and engaging. Ancis added, “We have taken under advisement the two years of data that we now have from women completing the program, and continue to refine Leading Women@Tech. We anticipate an even more powerful experience being delivered for our next cohort.”

“We appreciate the institutional support from the Office of the President and Institute Diversity, supervisors of the participants across the Institute, the excellence of our partners, and the stellar guidance of our advisory board members to proactively define the next generation of leaders at Georgia Tech,” said Pearl Alexander, executive director of diversity, inclusion, and engagement and co-director of the program.

Advisory board members included Maryam Alavi, dean and Stephen P. Zelnak Jr. Chair, Ernest Scheller Jr. College of Business; Terry Blum, faculty director, Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship; Errika Moore, executive director, Technology Association of Georgia Education Collaborative; and John Stein, dean of students and vice president, Student Life. In addition to Alexander, Cheryl Cofield, director of inclusion and engagement, served as an executive coach.

The nomination period for the third cohort of the Leading Women@Tech program will open in April. More information will be available in the coming weeks.

“The privilege to actively work with the caliber of women in this program has been personally rewarding,” said Alexander. “We encourage women leaders to participate in this unique experience. Leading Women@Tech provides an opportunity for participants to reflect on who they are and who they want to be, and to network among like-minded women committed to positive culture change at Georgia Tech.”

To view the Leading Women@Tech video about the second cohort’s experience, visit https://youtu.be/Uk3xZOPthu8. For more information on Leading Women@Tech, visit www.diversity.gatech.edu/leadingwomenattech

Editor's Note: This item was adapted from the article published on Feb. 22, 2018, by Institute Diversity.

March 7, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

This story by Kelly Freund originally appeared in the Winter 2017 Issue of Georgia Tech's Alumni Magazine.

JULY 2003

WHAT: A slow moving warm front will pull through the Georgia Tech campus as new students gather for FASET orientation near the student center. Expect this front to affect two students in particular: Laura Griffith and James Belanger. As the group of future Ramblin’ Wrecks gather around large signs depicting their major—with some 300 incoming freshmen milling about all the engineering fields—Laura will find just two other students under the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences banner. The small group will make the 10-minute walk to the department building and no one will say anything. Laura will think this is weird. The boy walking next to her seems like the less odd of the two students with her. So she will say, “Hi, I’m Laura.” “Hi, I’m James.”

PRECAUTIONARY ACTIONS: This is the beginning of something special. But James is a very risk-averse guy. 

This could take a while. 

Laura Belanger likes to tease her husband, James, that his first love was Weather Channel meteorologist Jeanetta Jones. Instead of watching cartoons as a kid, he would sit and watch the Weather Channel for hours. But according to James, it was not because of Jeanetta. Since the age of four, James knew he wanted to be a meteorologist. He spent the first few years of his life in North Carolina before moving to Georgia, and he remembers staying up late to watch the old TV version of radar, looking for snow.

“During elementary school, when we had our closed-circuit television broadcast, I was the TV weather guy,” James says. “It was kind of a no-brainer that I wanted to go to a university where I could become a meteorologist.”

As for Laura, she wanted to be a dentist. But that was short-lived. In the eighth grade, she was given a homework assignment to talk to someone with an occupation that she might like to have someday. Through acquaintances, she set up an interview at the National Weather Service in her hometown of Peachtree City, Ga. What was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation lasted an hour and a half because she wouldn’t stop asking questions. She walked out of the meeting with an offer for a volunteer position. 

Both Laura and James turned to Georgia Tech to jumpstart their careers in meteorology. The closeness to their hometowns played a factor, but the big draw was the prestige of the school and the holistic approach of Tech’s earth and atmospheric sciences program. The curriculum didn’t just focus on one facet, but provided them with a breadth of knowledge in the field. While he was in class, James might have resented sitting through lectures on earthquakes and atmospheric chemistry when all he wanted to learn about was severe thunderstorms and hurricanes. But graduates of Tech’s earth and 
atmospheric sciences program leave with a fundamental knowledge of earth science—as well as a passion to solve the world’s problems.

Laura and James are no exception. While most people think of meteorologists as the people who deliver the local daily weather forecast on TV, the couple works largely behind the scenes, analyzing weather data and its impacts, getting us all prepared for weather’s next big event.


WHAT: That same slow-moving warm front from 2003. Over the next few years, Laura and James will have a lot of interactions, from classes to study groups. But they will remain “just friends” for a long time. Then, their junior year, they will both become part of a study group for a particularly difficult class, and James (one of the only people Laura knows who will graduate from Tech with straight As) will teach everyone the material. It turns out he is only coming to the study group because Laura is there.

IMPACTS: This has gone on long enough. A friend will finally convince James to ask Laura out—which he will do over AOL Instant Messenger. She will respond with, “I have to check my work schedule.” James will think she’s going to say she has to wash her hair that night. 

She doesn’t.


Laura has been a part of the National Weather Service longer than she hasn’t. For the past 17 years, she’s worked her way from volunteer to intern to meteorologist.

There are 122 National Weather Service offices scattered across the country. Laura works at the only office physically located in Georgia, which covers forecasts and warnings, such as tornadoes and flash floods, for about two-thirds of the state. As a meteorologist, Laura produces routine forecast products (advisories and updates that you would see on TV or on weather apps). The National Weather Service provides decision support—supplying information to people who are trying to make decisions based on weather, like emergency managers or people putting on events. For example, when Atlanta hosts the College Football Championship in January 2018 and the Super Bowl in 2019, the Weather Service is already making plans so that plenty of forecasters will be on site for support in case of inclement weather impacting the area (even though the stadium’s retractable roof will provide ample cover come game time).

Laura also currently serves as the acting service hydrologist for the office. In this role, she goes out to the region’s flood-prone rivers to determine if the flood risk is literally rising, and then draws up detailed reports, also known in her world as impact statements. The National Weather Service uses these statements to provide more detailed information when warnings are issued.

“So when somebody says, ‘OK, you issued a flood warning for this river—what does that mean?’ We have specifics that say a house on the right bank of the river could have one foot of water above the foundation or this road is going to be closed,” Laura says.

When Laura was offered her full-time position with the National Weather Service, James was wrapping up his master’s at the State University of New York in Albany. To be near her, he decided to pursue his PhD at Georgia Tech and got a side gig working with a small startup company, CFAN, through Tech’s VentureLab program. 

CFAN eventually established a relationship with The Weather Company (which began as The Weather Channel in the 1980s), becoming their exclusive provider of tropical products (advisories, updates, etc.). In January 2016, IBM bought The Weather Company, acquiring their product and technology businesses. (The proprietary name, The Weather Channel, was included in the purchase. The television station was not acquired, however, but is now owned by Weathergroup, who has a long-term license and data agreement with IBM to use the name The Weather Channel and The Weather Company’s data products.) More funding became available to expand, including the creation of a new senior meteorological scientist position, which James took later that year in July.

The Weather Company is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve day-to-day weather forecasting around the globe. James and his team take in the forecast the National Weather Service is providing, but they also take in forecasts from a variety of other weather information sources, as well as other predictive models. The Weather Company then figures out a way to blend all this information together and deliver it to both consumers and businesses. James’ job is on the back end to work on the algorithms that are in place to generate those forecasts and combine them. 

“I’m taking my knowledge of AI and meteorology and trying to bring those two together—trying to identify how we can help industries that have been plagued by weather impacts and make better decisions as they consider their operations,” James says.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of weather talk going on at the Belanger house. There’s not always agreement. But Laura and James describe these debates as “healthy discussions.”

Because James is in the private sector and Laura works for the government, Laura likes to say the two are not rivals, but teammates who work in tandem. The Weather Company is working on projects that help support the mission of the National Weather Service, and the National Weather Service is providing data to The Weather Company for their forecasts.

“Since James is on more of the research side of things, and trying to improve forecast models and products, I joke with him that he’s got to leave room for the meteorologist,” Laura says. “He can’t do so well at his job that he eliminates the need for forecasters.”
“And my point to that is that we want to use forecasters in different ways than we’ve used them in the past,” James says.


The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most active on record. In late August, Hurricane Harvey became the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2005. Hitting Texas as a Category 4 storm, it went on to affect 13 million people in six states and cause $180 billion in damage. Hurricane Irma followed a few weeks later and went down in the record books for its meteorological significance, including its number of days as a major hurricane and as the strongest storm in the Atlantic this year. 

When Irma hit Florida, traveling up toward Georgia, it was all hands on deck for Laura and James at their respective companies. Laura was deployed to FEMA Region IV headquarters in Atlanta to help the office prepare ahead of the storm, and James was called up to write editorial content for weather.com.

“I think there is a general consensus when you’re talking to meteorologists about significant weather systems,” Laura says. “Meteorologists are torn between the awe and beauty of the storm (something we’ve studied and trained for), and the ache of knowing people are in harm’s way.”

As a meteorologist, part of Laura was excited to see such a huge storm persist. But as a forecaster providing decision support to FEMA—knowing what was likely to occur and the potential impacts to the millions of people in harm’s way—it was an emotional experience. 

James echoes Laura’s sentiments, but points out that valuable information can come from these significant storms. “As someone who works to implement the science of weather prediction into operations, these hurricanes provide us with a new sample for testing our machine learning forecast systems,” he says. “In the end, these cases ultimately result in improvement in the accuracy of our weather forecast content even though they end up causing billions of dollars in damage.”

Meteorologists like Laura and James know that we can use the new insights gained from significant weather systems to drive better decisions and outcomes not only in the short term (whether or not to put on a coat because of a given day’s temperature or threat of precipitation), but also in terms of the decisions we make when we think about things like where an airport should be located, how we should be designing our cities or implementing building codes. 

“You can’t keep the weather from happening,” Laura says. “But you can lessen the impact.”


Weather is an equalizer. It doesn’t care about your socioeconomic status. It doesn’t care where you live. It doesn’t care what college you went to or what you do for a living. It is one of the only things on this planet that affects everyone.

Because of this far-reaching impact, the change in weather statistics over time is an active area of research. The consensus among the scientific community is that there have been changes in things like the planet’s atmosphere, ecosystems and human food systems. James says that regardless of the underlying causes, these changes should motivate conversation and action centered around sustainability policies that increase resilience and reduce our environmental footprint. “A society that is more resilient to high-impact natural hazards like drought, winter storms and landfalling hurricanes is more likely to better withstand the impact of low-frequency climatic changes,” he says.

“You can look at the numbers, and I think it’s 90 percent of the presidential declarations are natural disasters,” Laura says. “We are lucky to be in a field where we can bring some education and some greater understanding to what those impacts mean for people and try to get people to understand what their greatest risks are.” 

March 12, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Three graduate students from College of Sciences attended the inaugural Communicating Science Conference—Atlanta (ComSciCon-Atlanta), held on March 1-2, 2018, at Georgia Tech. Like the 46 other participants, they wanted to improve how to talk to nonscientists about their research.

The conference program comprised lectures, panel discussions, breakout sessions, and networking. Attendees listened, learned, and practiced what they learned on the spot. The three College of Sciences participants came away with practical tips that they can immediately apply to their graduate studies.

Audra Davidson is a second-year Ph.D. student majoring in applied physiology in the School of Biological Sciences. She came to Georgia Tech after obtaining a B.S. in Kinesiology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research, she says, “examines how the way we move interacts with the way we think, by investigating how healthy subjects and patients use their motor system during cognitive tasks such as reading words.”

Justin Lanier is a third-year Ph.D. student in the School of Mathematics. He received a B.A. in Liberal Arts at St. John’s College, in Annapolis, Maryland. Lanier studies the symmetries of surfaces and how they interact. “The questions I try to answer about surfaces,” he says, “are related to the fact that just a few different moves of a Rubik’s cube can combine to create every possible scramble.”

Justin Lawrence is a second-year Ph.D. student studying planetary sciences in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. He earned his B.S. in Environmental Geoscience from Boston College. Using the least number of words, Lawrence describes his research thus: “Life-finding Antarctic submersibles as practice for Europa.” One of Jupiter’s moons, ice-covered Europa is a target for scientists looking for life outside of Earth. Lawrence’s Ph.D. supervisor, Britney Schmidt, leads a team that is using the Antarctic to test probes that could pierce through Europa’s icy surface and search for life in the waters beneath.

In the following, Q&A Davidson, Lanier, and Lawrence reflect on their experiences at ComSciCon-Atlanta.

How did the conference meet your expectations?
This conference wildly exceeded my expectations. From the experienced panelists and complex discussion topics, to the level of engagement and passion of every attendee, this conference was far better than I expected it to be. It’s amazing what can happen when you put a constant supply of caffeine and a lot of passionate scientists studying wildly different topics in the same room for two days!

Lanier: I was hoping to get a sense of publishing opportunities and to learn general-purpose tools and lenses for effective science communication. I also hoped to connect with other scientists interested in communicating with the public. The conference exceeded all these expectations.

Lawrence: I was hoping for more concrete activities and outcomes than what shorter meetings or seminars often deliver. ComSciCon-Atlanta proved to be just that. Organized by fellow graduate students in rigorous, quantitative fields, the workshops and panel discussions addressed useful, tangible strategies to improve our ability to communicate.

What did you find most useful, interesting, or engaging?
Lanier: Because almost all of the conferences I attend are focused on one discipline, it was exciting to interact with graduate students from a wide range of disciplines. I really enjoyed and appreciated the storytelling session – in which participants told a two-minute story to a partner, got feedback, and retold the now-improved story, to a second partner. It was useful to spend some time thinking about different ways to tell stories, because it’s easy to get in a rut and tell science stories in only certain kinds of ways

Lawrence: I particularly enjoyed the “Write-A-Thon.” We developed pieces on a scientific subject of our choice and went through peer and professional editing over the weeks leading to the conference. Working with an expert to refine a popular article I wrote greatly improved my work. I can apply the lessons I learned to most of the work I do.

Davidson: I loved hearing about other people’s work during the one-minute “Pop Talks.” Everyone’s research was different but we shared a passion for communicating our science to the public. Interacting with the other attendees helped me refine how I talk about my work. The real-time feedback during the “Pop Talks” – when the audience raised signs saying AWESOME or JARGON as the presenter spoke – is one helpful idea that I will take with me.

What practical lessons did learn?

  • Tell stories. People respond to stories and personal experiences more than they do to facts.
  • Scientists must communicate; it’s pointless to do the work if it cannot be effectively shared. Publicly funded researchers have an obligation to communicate their work. Communicating to audiences outside of one’s field shouldn’t be viewed as “dumbing things down’ or oversimplifying. Scientists must instead distill their work to the most essential, clear components.
  • When writing for the public, do not follow the linear flow of academic writing. Lead with the subject and talk about implications without burying the readers in background.


  • Think creatively about how to think. The conference offered different ways to do this, including real-time feedback, improvisational techniques, and the use of humor. I found these tactics helpful and inspiring.
  • Engage with scientists outside your field. This helps inspire creativity and collaboration and forces you to explain your work to someone who has no background in your field.
  • Facts can’t counter stories, but other stories can. Scientists are frustrated when others are not swayed by facts. To engage with the public, you must listen to their stories. Explaining your science in a way that relates to their experience may influence their opinions better than just insisting on facts.


  • I realized the importance of explaining the nature and goals of pure mathematics research, not only to the public but also even to a scientifically trained audience.
  • I got lots of great advice about structuring writing for a general audience, like leading with intriguing details and cutting quickly to the chase.
  • I learned innovative and inspiring ways to share science with a wider audience, for example, the blog posts at Astrobites and Chembites.

ComSciCon is the brainchild of graduate students at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who founded the annual workshop in 2013. Since then, ComSciCon has expanded beyond the annual meeting to a dozen local meetings throughout the country.

Laura Mast, a Ph.D. student in the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, led the inaugural ComSciCon-Atlanta. Her co-organizers were Carleenmae Sabusap, a graduate student in the University of Alabama, Birmingham; Anzar Abbas, a graduate student in Emory University; and Kellie Vinal, previously a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University and now a freelance science communicator. Vinal is the coordinator of the Atlanta Science Festival, the Atlanta producer of Story Collider, and scientist in residence at STE(A)M Truck.


March 14, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

This story by Monica Elliott originally appeared in the Winter 2017 Issue of Georgia Tech's Alumni Magazine.

Many of us grew up thinking of California as the epicenter of most earthquake activity in the United States. (It’s really Alaska.) But today, in the contiguous U.S., most of the major tremors—magnitude 3 or higher—actually occur in Oklahoma. And these tremors don’t appear to come from wholly natural causes.

“Most of this seismic activity is man-made or induced,” says Zhigang Peng, a professor of geophysics in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. 

Peng says that humankind has been proven to create earthquakes in three different ways: the construction of reservoirs or other surface-loading excavations; the direct extraction of natural resources, such as coal and oil from the earth; and the injection of fluids into the earth. 

However, Peng says a major misconception about induced earthquakes in the U.S. is that they’re primarily caused by the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to obtain oil and natural gas trapped in the earth. Fracking involves pumping high-pressure fluid into the ground with enough force to break open layers of rock so we can access those natural resources. 

Most of the earthquakes in Oklahoma and southern Kansas that researchers believe are induced are not directly caused by fracking itself, but instead by attempts to dispose of the wastewater at the end of the process by injecting it back into the ground, Peng says.

“The fracking process normally takes a short amount of time—maybe a few hours to a few days—to gain access to oil or natural gas,” Peng explains. “If everything works fine, you start to turn the fracking well into a production well. The production well will usually last for at least a few years if not longer, and during this process, a lot of extra things come out of the earth—most of them things you don’t want, like salt water. The easiest and cheapest way to dispose of this fluid is to inject it back into the earth.”

But to reach the type of rock formation that will consume it and to avoid contaminating aquifers, this wastewater must be injected back into the earth at a much deeper level than the fracking and production wells—which creates a seismic problem.

“The wastewater settles in a formation named Arbuckle that includes limestone and other sedimentary rocks with a lot of porous space because you want to have a layer that can suck a lot of water,” Peng says. “This layer sits right on top of the basement rock where most induced earthquakes occur.”

With the help of some of his students, Peng is studying high-rate injection wells in northwest Oklahoma where the U.S. Geological Survey forecasts the highest chance of earthquake damage in 2017. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Sooner state had only two to three earthquakes a year that reached 2.7 or greater from 1980 to 2000; but in 2015, there were 4,000 of that magnitude. That number decreased to 2,500 in 2016, which Peng postulates is likely due to tighter regulations and the decrease in oil prices leading to less fracking activity and resulting wastewater injection.

Among other things, Peng is studying why wastewater injection wells cause so many more earthquakes in Oklahoma than in any other part of the country. The factors he’s researching include injection rate, total volume injected and the presence of subsurface faults large enough to produce earthquakes that can be felt by man. 


In October, on a trip funded by the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Peng and some of the Ph.D. students in his earthquake physics course went to that hot zone in Oklahoma—places in and around the towns of Alva, Moreland and Fairview—and deployed some 20 seismic sensors to measure the activity. 

“We think we have pretty clear evidence saying wastewater injection and those induced earthquakes are related,” Peng says. “Fortunately, the state of Oklahoma also recognizes it’s a big problem. But there are still many open questions.”

Peng says the state is providing resources to help with their studies. Two staffers from the Oklahoma Geologic Survey and several University of Oklahoma students joined Peng and his students during the last deployment, as did two representatives from the company that provided the seismic sensors for the study, Seismic Source of Ponca City, Okla.

“The field deployment really highlighted the complexities of seismology and earthquake physics,” says Tech doctoral student Louisa Barama. “Over a few days, we set up stations in the same region but were surprised by the small differences each location had, from soil type and surrounding landscape and even picking station location.”  

Kai Hu, another PhD student, adds that their team also had a chance to communicate and interact with the local people who were well aware of all the seismic activity. “We let them know how the earthquake monitoring network can be used to advise and inform the government and oil companies to regulate their injection practices,” Hu says.

The largest earthquake registered in the region was a 5.8 in October 2016 near Pawnee, Okla., causing injury and damages. However, the vast majority of the tremors remain small, though still concerning.

According to Peng, there are two schools of thought on whether these induced earthquakes can cause larger, more dangerous earthquakes. Some believe it depends on the size of the perturbed area—if only a small, confined area is perturbed, only a small event could result, so the maximum size is limited. But the other argument is that once an event is triggered, no matter how small, that event could trigger an even larger event. 

“We’ve actually seen signs of this type of domino effect,” Peng says. “And in that case, once you start something, it’s not controlled by the region of perturbation, it’s controlled by tectonic loading. That means if the region is already stressed out and you trigger something and it goes into this domino effect you may trigger something much bigger than your initial perturbations.”

Peng hopes ultimately his research can help inform better ways for energy companies to access natural resources from the earth without inducing large, damaging earthquakes.

“You can’t just say to companies, ‘Don’t do it,’” Peng says. “We have to have energy, but we have to find a way to do it so that we don’t potentially cause problems. Nobody wants to trigger a damaging magnitude 7 or 8 earthquake. In that aspect, we’re all on the same page.” 


In addition to his work on earthquakes induced by wastewater injection, Zhigang Peng is conducting research on reservoir-induced earthquakes in the Sichuan Province of China where he grew up. He’s focused on the magnitude 7.9 Wenchuan earthquake that occurred in May 2008—the largest and most devastating earthquake in China in the past 40 years. 

A few years before the earthquake, the Zipingpu dam and reservoir was built within 10 kilometers of the epicenter of the event. There has been a long debate on whether the reservoir triggered the 2008 earthquake. Peng is currently working with scientists in China to re-examine the seismic data near the epicenter to find answers. 

Peng is presenting his research this month in New Orleans at the Annual American Geophysical Union Meeting, the largest conference for geophysicists in the world. If his findings establish a connection between the reservoir and the 2008 earthquake, it would be the largest confirmed human-induced earthquake on record. 


THE LARGEST RECORDED EARTHQUAKE in the United States was a magnitude 9.2 that struck Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 28, 1964. The largest recorded earthquake in the world was a magnitude 9.5 (moment magnitude) in Chile on May 22, 1960. 

MAGNITUDE is the most common measure of an earthquake’s size. It is a measure of the size of the earthquake source based on the maximum motion recorded by a seismograph or seismometer. It is the same number no matter where you are or what the shaking feels like. 

THE RICHTER SCALE is no longer used by seismologists to measure magnitude, but it is still referenced often by the media. Other magnitude scales, extensions of Richter’s original idea, include body wave magnitude (Mb) and surface wave magnitude (Ms). Their range of validity is equivalent to the Richter magnitude. The more uniformly applicable extension of the magnitude scale is moment magnitude (Mw). For very large earthquakes, moment magnitude gives the most reliable estimate of earthquake size.

AN INCREASING NUMBER of earthquakes are being cataloged today not because there are more earthquakes, but because there are more seismic instruments able to record them.

THE NATIONAL EARTHQUAKE INFORMATION CENTER now locates approximately 20,000 earthquakes each year, or approximately 55 per day. 

ABOUT 16 MAJOR EARTHQUAKES, including 15 earthquakes in the magnitude 7 range and one earthquake magnitude 8.0 or greater, are expected to occur each year. 

Source: United States 
Geological Survey

March 16, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

This story by Roger Slavens originally appeared in the Winter 2017 Issue of Georgia Tech's Alumni Magazine.

THOUGH VOLCANIC ACTIVITY of some form or another happens daily on our planet Earth, explosive eruptions of ash and pyroclastic matter—like those recently spewing from Bali’s Mount Agung—are a fairly rare occurrence. So it should be no surprise that Josef Dufek and his fellow volcanologists are excited by the opportunity to watch the fireworks and learn something new. An acclaimed expert on magma, fluid mechanics and the detonative dynamics of volcanoes, Dufek serves as professor and associate chair in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, where he teaches a number of courses and regularly leads students in field research. The Alumni Magazine thought it would be a blast to talk to Dufek about his work at Tech and find out if we’re all inevitably doomed to die under mounds of volcanic ash and lava.


My training really is in fluid dynamics; in particular I’m trying to understand how fluids play a role in distributing energy—from the crust of the earth upwards. I look at the magma system below the ground and how it interacts with geothermal fluids and subsurface rocks. But probably the majority of my time is spent studying how volcanoes erupt, what causes them to erupt, and then—once they erupt—what the likely outcomes are. I’m most fascinated with explosive eruptions, like the one going on in Bali right now. 


We have an intro level class called Natural Hazards that’s fairly broad to start them off. But, more focused, we have a class called Physical Volcanology that really dives into the physics of volcanoes. It draws a lot of earth science majors but also many from engineering disciplines, most notably aeronautical engineers who are interested in how volcanic ash affects flight. We also teach a field course that’s called Field Methods in Volcanic Terrains that’s taught every year, and faculty and students travel to different volcanic sites every year. We often go to the Pacific Northwest, Northern Arizona and California, but we’ve also traveled farther afield to places like Mexico and Greece. 


Those are the big courses but there are many related offerings such as Geodynamics, that explores how large earth motions are dictated by energy in the earth, and an Intro to Geophysics class. I teach Fluid Mechanics as well. So there’s actually quite a breadth of things that touch upon volcanoes in one way or another. An undergraduate at Tech who is really interested in volcanoes would typically be an earth and atmospheric sciences major, and then could specialize in Geophysics.


Yes, in Chile. It’s a long-term project that involves a number of different U.S. institutions, but the main ones are Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Cornell. It’s focused on one volcanic region called Laguna del Maule that first gained interest a few years ago because satellites found it evidence of sustained and dramatic uplift that might indicated volcanic activity. Our project aims to document that activity, and to try to understand better what will happen in the future in this region.


I’m not an expert on this particular volcano, but what’s happening is that magma is rising and volatile species—water, carbon dioxide, sulfur—are exsolving, creating a bubbly, low density magma. So you have this rapid change in density, and the change in buoyancy allows the magma to rise faster and faster, and then if it gets fast enough, it goes past the yield strength of the fluid, the magma, and it’ll break up or fragment. That’s when you get an explosive eruption that releases all that built-up pressure. 


Yes, because the material being released is extremely energetic. There are two main hazards to worry about. One, which is making the news now, is the volcanic ash that’s being expelled into the atmosphere. You can’t fly airplanes through it because the ash is rapidly quenched molten rock, which is really a glass. So if you have a plane up there in the ash, you’d be flying through glass shards, which you can guess would be bad for jet engines. The other hazard, which is why thousands of people are evacuating, is pyroclastic density currents. These are fast-moving, ground-hugging, deadly currents that are akin to a scalding hot avalanche. They’re turbulent, and they can move tens of meters per second—faster than you probably can drive down the roads there. It’s very hard to predict where these flows will go and they are much worse than effusive lava flows, which tend to move slower and more predictably. One other issue that becomes important in a place that gets a lot of rain, like Bali, is something called lahars, or mudflows. From this volcano, you’re ejecting tons and tons of really fine-grain material, and if you add a little water in, that kind of soup is a lahar. They are also very mobile and energetic and capable of causing much destruction in low-lying areas.


They’re pretty rare in terms of overall volcanic activity, but they get most of the news coverage. At any given moment, somewhere around the earth there’s something erupting, just not as grand as Mount Agung or in as populated a region.


Most people think of active volcanoes being these majestic mountains with colorful, relatively tranquil streams of lava flowing out of them, like the ones we have in Hawaii. But there’s a wide range of volcanic activity that doesn’t look or behave like that. The most dangerous ones are those like Agung that can explode violently and eject a lot of ash and create fast-moving, very destructive pyroclastic density currents.


The thing that we do have an advantage over some other geophysical phenomena—say, earthquakes—is that we often have good warning signs that volcanoes will erupt. With earthquakes, scientists can make some long-term predictions about when faults are likely to fail, but the exact moments are pretty impossible to predict. Volcanoes generally give us more time to evacuate people and prepare for what’s about to come.


“Supervolcano” is one of those terms with which volcanologists have a love-hate relationship. What people are talking about is something that’s massive in size and can produce a hundred to a thousand times the volcanic materials of, say, Mount St. Helens produced (about one cubic kilometer of volcanic material). We know that eruptions producing 100 to 1,000 cubic kilometers of material have happened in the past, just not in recorded human history. If you drive across the western United States, you almost certainly have driven by eruption deposits that document past volcanic activity on this scale—the evidence is there at Yellowstone National Park and all across southern Idaho in the calderas, many of which are now buried beneath potato fields. Researchers know that a so-called supervolcano will explode in the future, but there are no signs it will happen anytime soon, or even during our lifetimes. If Yellowstone did erupt on a massive scale right now, the volcanic ash would cool temperatures across the northern hemisphere and settle across the Midwestern U.S., probably destroying much of the country’s food production capabilities. There would be a domino effect globally, but it wouldn’t likely cause mass extinction or our ultimate doom. 

March 17, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Felix Herrmann has been named as a 2019 Distinguished Lecturer for the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) for the period covering January through June 2019. 

In addition to recognizing an individual's contributions to the science or application of geophysics, this position is an active effort to promote geophysics, stimulate general scientific and professional interest, expand technical horizons, and provide a connection to SEG activities and practices.

During his term as an SEG Distinguished Lecturer, Herrmann will travel around the world to speak about the use of compressive sensing in exploration seismology. More specifically, he will speak about how techniques from compressive sensing can be used to look for new and innovative ways to collect time-lapse seismic data at reduced costs and reduced environmental impact. Herrmann will demonstrate that compressive seismic data acquisition removes the need to acquire expensive densely sampled and replicated field surveys, which can lead to an order of magnitude improvement in acquisition efficiency.

Herrmann joined the Georgia Tech faculty in 2017 as a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and as a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Energy. He holds joint appointments in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the School of Computational Science and Engineering.

March 22, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

The Georgia Institute of Technology announces the formal launch of the Global Change Program, a new initiative designed to coordinate and grow educational and research activities focused on providing solutions and creating economic opportunities at the intersection of global change, climate change, and energy.

The launch follows a year of deliberations by an executive committee of campus stakeholders brought together under a joint charge from the Office of the Provost and Office of the Executive Vice President for Research. The 22-member committee was led by President Emeritus G. Wayne Clough and represented all six colleges.

“The work of the committee highlighted the many ongoing and exciting efforts in the global change space happening in schools, units, and centers across the Institute,” said Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs. “Bringing these groups together in a coordinated, collaborative, and multidisciplinary way will amplify Georgia Tech’s thought leadership and expertise, expand academic programs, and strengthen key partnerships with industry and peer institutions.”

The program will be directed by Kim Cobb, ADVANCE professor and Georgia Power Chair in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Early program activities include curriculum design for undergraduates, including creation of an “Energy and Climate” minor and a climate solutions lab. The program will also host speakers and roundtable events to showcase Georgia Tech’s contributions to global change-related subjects including energy, food and water supply, air quality, ocean health, public policy, and economics. Objectives include possible expansion of academic programs to graduate students, and growth of new partnerships both within Georgia Tech and with public and private partners.

“The initial thrust of the Global Change Program will focus on undergraduate education and the creation of critical connections among our research and academic faculty,” said Cobb. “Our students want exposure and real-world, hands-on experience with these topics as they enter the workforce. Growth of current programs like the Carbon Reduction Challenge and development of new programs will allow future generations of learners to understand issues of global change from the vantage point of their own discipline.”

The Global Change Program is initially supported by seed funds from the Office of the Provost and the Executive Vice President for Research, and through a $500,000 gift from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. The gift builds upon the successful expansion of Cobb’s Carbon Reduction Challenge to co-op and internship students who partner with their employer to design and implement a carbon reduction project that delivers cost savings.

The co-curricular initiative is a partnership between Cobb and Beril Toktay, professor in the Scheller College of Business and faculty director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business.

“We believe this is a critical time to support an initiative as exciting as the Global Change Program,” said John A. Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. “With its focus on solutions to our pressing global challenges, in particular the challenge of climate change, the program will make Georgia Tech a leader in creating positive change. We are grateful to President Peterson, Dr. Cobb, President Emeritus Clough, and the entire administration for their commitment to this important work.”

Two councils will be established in support of the program. A faculty advisory council has been established to help shape program activities and ongoing strategic objectives. Chaired by Clough, the council is an extension of the initial executive committee. An external advisory board will also be established.

“The implications of global change are economic, environmental, and cultural,” said Clough. “The work is happening all over campus, and Georgia Tech has a tremendous opportunity to influence the scholarship and policy solutions that address issues of global change and ready students for the careers of the future.”

EDITOR"S NOTE: This item was adapted from a story by Susie Ivy published on March 19, 2018, in the Georgia Tech News Center

March 23, 2018 | Atlanta, GA

Marc Weissburg has been appointed Georgia Tech’s newest Brook Byers Professor. The Brook Byers Professorship is the highest title bestowed at Georgia Tech for distinguished faculty who are specifically engaged in sustainability-related research and education.

Weissburg is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and codirector of the Center for Biologically Inspired Design. He joined Georgia Tech in 1997, having earlier earned his B.S. degree in Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, and his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Weissburg's research interests concern chemical signaling by marine animals, marine community ecology, and predator-prey dynamics. His recent efforts have been concentrated in two areas: developing methods to suppress predation on juvenile oysters in farmed and natural communities and examining the biological and fisheries consequences of climate change and ocean acidification.

More broadly, Weissburg has a long-standing interest in comparative and interdisciplinary research and education. To this end, he has collaborated with industry groups, professional designers, architects, scientists, and engineers on the use of biologically inspired strategies to enhance human-built systems. Using principles derived from the examination of energy and material flows in ecological systems, he has helped to develop methods for determining material and energy use efficiency and resilience, and he has applied them to systems at scales ranging from neighborhoods and industrial complexes to large cities.

Concurrent to Weissburg’s appointment, five Georgia Tech faculty members were named Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems (BBISS) Faculty Fellows. Among them is Yuanzhi Tang, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Tang is interested in the complex interworking between human activities and the natural environment by exploring the chemical reactions occurring at the microbe-mineral-water interface from molecule to macroscopic scale. By combining laboratory-based analytical techniques with synchrotron-based X-ray techniques, she aims to understand the fate, transport, and bioavailability of metal and radionuclide contaminants and nanoparticles, as well as the biogeochemical cycling of important nutrients in complex environmental settings.

Tang has partnered with scientists in Georgia Tech and beyond to attack the problem of integrated contaminant elimination and resource recovery from biological wastes. The National Science Foundation has awarded Tang and her collaborators over $2.4 million over three years to figure out how to integrate and optimize multiple technologies to recover energy, water, and nutrients from biological wastes, while simultaneously reducing waste volume and removing the heavy metals, pathogens, and organic contaminants.

The other BBISS Faculty Fellows are

In addition to their own work, the Brook Byers Professor and BBISS Fellows serve as a board of advisors to BBISS, helping to advance institute's vision, mission, values, and objectives across the community of sustainability-minded researchers, educators, and students at Georgia Tech.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This item was adapted from an article by Brent Verrill published on March 19, 2018, on the BBISS website. Information about Yuanzhi Tang was added.


Subscribe to School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences | Georgia Institute of Technology | Atlanta, GA RSS