Geophysicist Zachary Ross named Packard Fellow – Pasadena Now

Zachary Ross. Courtesy of Caltech

Zachary Ross, Assistant Professor of Geophysics and William H. Hurt Fellow, was selected as one of the 2022 Packard Scholars for Science and Engineering. The fellowship is awarded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and provides early-career scientists and engineers with $875,000 over five years to pursue their research.

Ross’s research focuses on using tiny earthquakes to better understand the physical processes behind fault zones and volcanoes. It uses machine learning to identify imperceptibly small earthquakes, from which huge seismic datasets are built to visualize subterranean fault structures and the “plumbing” that funnels magma to volcanoes, recharging them between eruptions.

“It’s analogous to taking a CT [computerized tomography] scanner, the way a doctor can view the inside of a patient’s body,” says Ross. “But instead of using controlled sources with X-rays, we use passive sources, which are earthquakes.”

Ross’s team works extensively on earthquakes in California, with particular emphasis on the San Jacinto Fault Zone which extends from the Hemet region to the Salton Sea in Southern California. The San Jacinto area is seismically very active, producing a large amount of small earthquakes, making it an excellent natural laboratory for studying seismic processes, Ross says. More recently, his team has also begun applying their methods to earthquakes in the Hawaiian volcanic system to better understand the processes by which magma is transported from the depths to volcanoes.

Ross’s research delves deep into the nature of fault zones and the rocks that compose them, uncovering properties such as the degree to which the rock is fractured and whether fluids are present near the fault, as well as other characteristics likely to have an impact on seismicity. It also hopes to provide clearer observations of seismic processes and the faults that produce them.

“Scientists creating physical models of earthquake systems really need good observational constraints to rule out certain types of models,” Ross says. “We have a lot of data, but most of it comes from the surface, which is far from where the exciting stuff is happening.”

Ross earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from UC Davis, a master’s degree in civil engineering from California Polytechnic State University, and a Ph.D. in geophysics from USC. In 2019 he received a Keiiti Aki Early Career Award from the American Geophysical Union and in 2021 he was named a William H. Hurt Scholar.

The Packard Science and Engineering Scholarships, among the largest non-governmental scholarships in the country, are designed to allow their recipients maximum flexibility in the use of funding. Since 1988, this program has supported the blue sky thinking of scientists and engineers whose research over time has led to new discoveries that improve people’s lives and improve our understanding of the universe.

Recent Caltech faculty Packard Scholars include Francois Tissot, See Kimberly, Matt Thompson, Mansi Kasliwal (MS ’07, PhD ’11), Constantin Batygin (MS ’10, PhD ’12), Mikhail Shapiroand David Hsieh.

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