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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

February 8, 2002

MHC Student Rocks!


Katharine Sayre '02 is pleased to count herself among the nation's "rock squeezers," scientists who study rock deformation.

Scientists know a lot about rocks, from their age, to their makeup, to how they form. But they still have a lot to learn, such as how certain rocks react under certain conditions. Among the scientists trying to answer such questions are geologists who study rock deformation. They are known as "rock squeezers," and Mount Holyoke student Katharine Sayre '02 now counts herself among them. Last summer, the geology major studied rock friction at Brown University with Terry Tullis, professor of geological sciences, and Brian Titone, a student at the State University of New York, New Paltz. Sayre sought the experience in a university lab to prepare herself for graduate school, but she left with a new research passion and a discovery that may have implications for understanding earthquake-causing fault lines around the world. She presented her work at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Fracisco, an undergraduate achievement that Associate Professor of Geology Al Werner calls "nothing short of amazing."

Sayre's first experiments at Brown looked at the friction caused by quartz rocks sliding against each other. As expected, this sliding action created high friction. When she added water to the rocks, however, Sayre saw the formation of a gel substance that lubricated the rocks, thereby decreasing the friction on the sliding surface between them and keeping the temperature of the surface relatively low.

The discovery might help explain why there are no melted quartz rocks in nature, says Sayre. Because of the pressure of moving slabs of rocks along fault lines, she explains, "melted fault rocks" called pseudotachylites form in all kinds of rock—all kinds except quartz, that is. Sayre wonders whether circulating underground water creates silica gel on quartz rocks in nature, just as it did in the lab, resulting in less friction, a lower temperature, and no melting.

Sayre's experiments might also help to explain the "heat flow paradox" that geophysicists have observed at fault lines such as the San Andreas Fault in California. The paradox, says Sayre, is that the temperature of the fault surface at the San Andreas Fault is much lower than is expected at a place of friction created by rock sliding against rock. Sayre hopes that her findings will help explain that discrepancy.

Although disappointed that she can't participate in friction experiments now being continued by her lab group at Brown, Sayre is excited about the possibility of publishing her findings in Geophysical Research Letters. She also looks forward to future graduate study in rock friction, earthquake mechanics, and neotectonics (modern movement of the earth's crust), a program of study that she hopes will lead her to helping the world's communities plan for earthquake hazards. As one of a rare few undergraduates invited to present at a professional conference, Sayre is well on her way toward becoming just such a leader among "rock squeezers."

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