Rachel M. Lauer

Dr. Rachel M. Lauer

If they are interested in science or engineering—we need them!

Assistant Professor, Geophysics stream, Geoscience Department
University of Calgary

Geofluids and geohazards research. Webpage

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As an academic, what is your favourite part of your job?

Working with students and getting them excited about research is probably my favourite part, although I really enjoy teaching as well. The whole process of discovery and digging into the unknown is what keeps me going and working with great students is the icing on the cake!

What are you researching and what excites you about it?

My research is broadly focused on geofluids and geohazards, with applications in both offshore environments (fluid processes in subduction zones related to seismicity) as well as terrestrial projects focused on applying near surface geophysical methods to understanding fluid pathways in the subsurface. I am excited to be working on projects that are linked despite their different environments. In the Alberta Prairie, I am looking into the mechanisms that drive the formation of small mud mounds that are analogous to submarine mud volcanoes, thought to be the result of focused fluid flow along faults. The terrestrial mounds represent hazards to livestock and heavy equipment, and render farmland unusable for crops or cattle, and we are working with geochemists and microbiologists at the U of C to understand their origin, the microbes that they host, and potential links to carbon pathways and hydrogeology of the region.

The submarine work has been focused on subduction zones and farther offshore, where heat flow measurements suggest hydrothermal circulation into and out of the crust via seamonts can explain the “missing heat.” I use numerical models of fluid and heat transport to understand the distribution of fluid pressures in subduction zones, and the flow rates requires to extract enough heat via hydrothermal processes farther offshore, which also provides constraints on fluid flow rates and hydraulic parameters.

What types of professions can students graduating in your field enter?

Times are tough right now for graduating geophysics students, with the downturn in the oil and gas (O&G) Industry. I teach a 3rd year course in Rock Properties that includes a few weeks of hydrogeology concepts tied to poroelasticity, so students can gain an understanding of the fluid component of environmental geophysics, which (IMHO) provides a viable alternative to employment in the current market. I started my career in geophysics consulting and have included undergrad students in each of my fieldwork campaigns which has been great for me, and gets them some valuable experience in applied geophysics outside O&G. I honestly think groundwater will be the next “oil” in our changing world and I want to help students prepare for a world that needs more people with an understanding of groundwater and how it can be monitored with environmental geophysics.

Is your workplace male-dominated? If so, how do you negotiate being a woman in a male-dominated workplace and/or field?

Yes. I am the only female in our Geophysics program out of 11 Faculty, although I have really been well received and have felt well supported thus far as the -- female in Geophysics. I suspect this is in part because I have become accustomed to being in this role, after years of consulting where I was the only woman working on the site. Also, it is a great Department and I have exciting ongoing collaborations that cross into Geology.

How do you foster and encourage diversity in your workplace?

Our student population is very diverse in terms of student countries of origin, although we have very few women in the program. I have been lucky to have many of these women volunteer to help with fieldwork on various projects, and seek advice as they consider graduate school options, both at the U of Calgary and abroad. I hope that I represent a role model for women in our program, and even promote more women to join geophysics as a major as I get more involved with the first and second year courses, with the potential to recruit more awesome women into geophysics!

What kinds of systemic support could institutions provide to help encourage girls and women to pursue careers in science and engineering?

I think the most important thing is for young women to see other women doing science, in the field, and the lab—that is the first step toward getting them thinking about their own potential for careers in science in engineering. That means having more women in mentoring roles!

What advice would you give to girls or young women who are interested in careers in science or engineering?

If they are interested in science or engineering—we need them! I was honestly intimidated initially by the quantitative aspects of science, and now realize that not everyone needs to be a math genius - we also need creative minds in science and engineering. I would encourage budding scientists to pursue an undergraduate research project with a professor they respect, and feel comfortable working with. These undergraduate experiences can be incredibly rewarding, and helpful in guiding students to make decisions about career paths. Also, they can gain valuable experience that will ideally assist their job search, if that is the path they choose.

As a professional in science or engineering, who are your role models and mentors?

The female mathematicians (computers) who worked at NASA during the space race are incredible role models, (watch the movie Hidden Figures!). My postdoc advisor, Andy Fisher at UCSC, was an incredible mentor to me, and an awesome researcher and human. I have also been a Richard Feynman groupie most of my adult life.