Alumna Professor Has Earthshaking Subject

maggie benoit
Maggie Benoit ’99 is an assistant professor of physics at the College. Her research interests are earthquake seismology, plate tectonics, and environmental geophysics

By Anne Levin Benedict

As horrific as it was, the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January didn’t shock Maggie Benoit ’99. An assistant professor of physics at The College of New Jersey with a specialty in earthquake seismology, plate tectonics, and environmental geophysics, Benoit knows which parts of the world are most vulnerable to these mammoth seismic shifts. And the area around Port au Prince, Haiti, is at the top of the list

“I wasn’t at all surprised,” Benoit says, “because a plate boundary goes right through there. An even larger earthquake could certainly occur at any time. Earthquakes are a completely natural phenomenon we have no control over. All we can do is educate people about hazards and building codes. We can’t predict a date and a time when they will occur, but we can make estimates of probabilities of how much ground-shaking there will be.”

The Haiti earthquake is a current topic of discussion in the physics and geology classes Benoit teaches at TCNJ. It wasn’t long ago that she was sitting on the other side of the desks at the college, from which she graduated summa cum laude in 1999. Benoit entered TCNJ intending to focus on planetary science. But a class in geology early on changed the course of her education and her future.

“I took one class and I was sold,” recalls the rosy-cheeked Benoit, who looks younger than her 32 years. “I realized that I could use math and physics, and apply them toward learning about the earth. A lot of people think geology is just looking at rocks, when it’s so much more than that. There is so much to be learned and explored. People think it’s a dead science, but it’s not.”

Love of science

Magaret Benoit grew up in Hillsborough Township. Inspired by her father’s enthusiasm, she was fascinated by astronomy from a young age. “I loved science as a kid,” she says. “I was really interested in the planets. My father encouraged me. He bought me books, and a telescope, and that’s how we bonded. I had a lot of family support. I remember going outside with him to look for Saturn, Jupiter, and the nebula. I loved it.

During her junior year at TCNJ, Benoit crossed the country to do an internship at the University of Alaska. The project — looking for the depth of the crust mantle boundary beneath Alaska — was unforgettable. “I was applying everything I had learned as a physics student to something real,” she says. “That cemented it. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

The Alaska internship also introduced Benoit to the man who would become her husband, Nathan Magee. An atmospheric scientist who studies clouds, he is currently teaching at TCNJ. The couple are parents to 2-and-a-half-year-old Benjamin, and Benoit is pregnant with their daughter, due in May.

After graduating from TCNJ, Benoit went on to earn a PhD from Pennsylvania State University. “They have a very large, great geosciences program,” she says. “I knew I wanted to travel, and I got to go to Africa and Antarctica as part of my studies. It’s so important to get out there, to see the world and investigate.

It was toward the end of a two-year postdoctoral fellowship program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that Benoit saw an ad for a teaching job at TCNJ. She was pregnant with Benjamin at the time. The prospect of going back to her alma mater was immediately appealing.

“I knew I wanted to provide opportunities for students who were like me — middle class, New Jersey kids who are kind of sheltered and haven’t seen the world,” she says. “I wanted to get them out, take them to conferences, and get them to go outside. A lot of people just don’t go outside.”

A seismic network

Since coming to the College in 2007, Benoit has set up a nine-station seismic network across Appalachia with a fellow scientist from Yale University. Last summer, Benoit brought three undergraduate students with her to Appalachia. Three graduate students from Yale joined them. (Click here to watch a video story about that project.)

“It was hot and miserable, but my students were fantastic,” she says. “They made us proud. And they got to interact with the grad students from Yale, which was good for them.”

Benoit recently took two students to San Francisco to attend a conference. She has also taken students to Italy to investigate whether there is ongoing subduction (the pulling down to earth of the oceanic crust) in the northern part of the country. “There is contention about it,” she says. “We know that it happens in southern Italy. It’s important, because subduction zones produce the largest earthquakes.”

The National Science Foundation has given Benoit a grant to create curricula at the college level, which will bring cutting-edge research about earthquakes into the classroom. The main focus of her current research, she says, is exploring the inside of the earth and making pictures using technology similar to a CAT scan.

“I use them as my tools. The time and distance let you figure out the wave speed, and that gives us information about what the inside of the earth looks like,” she says. “We try and make maps of hot and cold areas of the earth. We can see down about 500 kilometers into the earth.”

While her students are currently focused on the seismic events in Haiti, Benoit also makes sure they are informed about the geology of locations closer to home. “I do make my students learn a lot about New Jersey,” she says. “There is so much here for them to learn about.”

Reprinted by permission of The Times of Trenton © 2010.

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