Studying The Earth’s Movers and Shakers

Without knowing much about the field, Heather DeShon (’99) took what she calls “a leap of faith” to enter SMU as a geophysics major. “Mom always thought I would be a student forever,” she jokes, “but I don”t think I knew that I would stay in academia.”

Now an assistant research professor at The University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI), DeShon “works on data that will help us understand how earthquakes actually generate and what’s controlling how large they will be.” CERI stands at the epicenter of collaborative research on the active New Madrid seismic zone. The fault system slices through parts of Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.


“My research generally focuses on subduction zones, where one tectonic plate is pulled underneath another, and I’m starting to concentrate more on New Madrid,” she says.

A President’s Scholar, DeShon found her niche when she took Introduction to Seismology from Eugene Herrin (’51), Shuler-Foscue Professor of Seismology in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College. “I knew I didn’t want to look at rocks, but seismology offered the possibility of field work,” she says.

After graduating from SMU with a double major in geophysics and mathematics, DeShon earned a doctorate in geophysics at the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2004. Field work took her to Central America, where she deployed seismometers in the ocean off the Costa Rican coast and on-shore instrumentation to locate small-magnitude earthquakes as precisely as possible.

“The idea was that small earthquakes occur on the same portion of a fault that would rupture during a major earthquake, which would enable us to locate the boundaries of bigger quakes,” she says. “What we found, however, is that the small earthquakes probably don’t tell us about the entire rupture area, so we use the data collected to figure out what proxies, other than small earthquakes, will provide the information.”

The faults that DeShon studies today have the potential to generate deadly tsunamis like the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, which killed more than 225,000 people in 11 countries. ”We can’t predict earthquakes in the sense that we can say tomorrow there will be an earthquake here, but we can hope to better understand probabilities,” she says.

DeShon, who joined the CERI faculty in 2007, also relishes international travel and collaboration. “I’ve been to South America and Europe for meetings and short courses, and I recently returned from a month-long project in Germany, where I worked with professors at the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel.”

In addition to refining her research, DeShon teaches graduate-level courses and
this fall introduced a Data Analysis in Geophysics class. “I like the research aspect – the problem-solving and the hunting down solutions to important questions.”

Click here to read more about DeShon’s research.

1 Comment

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    Andy Mover June 23, 2009

    I was searching about earthquakes and landed on this page. I’d like to say that you wrote a very good article.

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