Camilla Cattania named 2024 NSF CAREER recipient

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) Professor Camilla Cattania as a recipient of their prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program. The CAREER award, first started in 1995, seeks to support early-career faculty that serve as academic role models in both research and education.

Cattania’s project, “Towards a comprehensive model of seismicity throughout the seismic cycle”, will study “micro seismicity”, or small earthquakes that happen frequently near major faults. These earthquakes measure around two or three on the magnitude scale and aren’t usually felt by people, but are still measured by field equipment. Scientists like Cattania are investigating what causes fluctuations in their frequency of occurrence, and whether these changes are diagnostic of impending larger earthquakes.

“In this research, I’m trying to see if there is anything that can allow us to distinguish seismicity that happen before earthquakes, versus other periods of intense microseismic activity that don’t result in a large earthquake,” says Cattania, a Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor.

Less than half of large earthquakes are preceded by these foreshocks, which often happen on smaller faults located near larger ones, where the crust has been damaged from previous earthquakes.

“The goal is to see if we can get a better handle as to where should we expect this; Is there any physical reason why some earthquakes have foreshocks and some don’t?” says Cattania. The longer length of the CAREER award means that she and her lab can build a model using a new computational technique that will make running it more efficient. She hopes to use it to reconcile observational data with lab experiments that show predictable patterns of foreshocks, a behavior different from what is typically observed in nature.

“It gives us a chance to tackle a question on a much more comprehensive level than we would have done otherwise,” she says. Her team, along with international collaborators, plan on using existing data collected from California, Italy and Iceland.

Another important component of the CAREER award is education. In partnership with 826 Boston, a nonprofit focused on improving student literacy, Cattania and her students will have the chance to work with Boston area high schools by leading interactive labs and demonstrations about their earthquake research. It will also give the students the chance to talk to MIT graduate students, ask questions, and be exposed to professionals in science.

“We don’t want it to be a one-way teaching where we’re only giving them notions; we want them to be able to ask questions about what it’s like to find out these things, to discover,” she says. “Adding the human component, and having them interact with the MIT grad students, will give them a chance to see not just see the science, but see the scientists behind the science.”