URI grad student spends year in Australian lab to examine volcanism, evolution of Earth

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Newport resident uses corn syrup to simulate molten rock

NARRAGANSETT, R.I – January 4, 2010 – Lava lamps, corn syrup and flowing honey aren’t the typical scientific terms used when discussing the evolution of the earth, but that’s how Newport resident Kelsey Druken explains her research. A doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, she has just returned from presenting the first results of her research at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

“I’m studying fluid motion and how it applies to earth science. I’m looking at how the inside of the earth evolves over time,” said Druken, who earned an undergraduate degree in physics from URI in 2006.

The main focus of Druken’s research is subduction zones – sites on the seafloor where tectonic plates have collided, forcing one plate beneath the other.

“When one plate sinks back into the earth, it generates flow,” she explained. “Over millions of years, it looks like honey flowing, sort of like the movement of glaciers over thousands of years, but this is over millions of years. The way the flow moves tells us where we may have volcanoes.”

Because it is impossible to directly observe the molten flows she seeks to understand, Druken spent a year at the Australian National University, the site of one of the world’s best laboratories for studying geophysical fluid dynamics.

“My style of research is to go into a lab and try to recreate plate motions and study the flows that they generate,” she said. “So I use corn syrup in a big tank in Australia.”

Built by URI Professor Christopher Kincaid and Australian colleagues in 2002, the tank of corn syrup allows researchers to examine the three-dimensional motions caused by the collisions of tectonic plates at subduction zones. While in Australia, Druken ran a series of experiments to visualize the patterns that result from the flowing corn syrup.

“These patterns are important, like tidal patterns or currents in the ocean,” she said. “Different patterns mean different things. I was looking at how different patterns in the flow are represented at the surface in volcanism.”

In one experiment, she simulated a hot plume of magma rising from the earth’s mantle, the same kind of flow that created the Hawaiian Islands, which she described as looking like “a plume rising in a lava lamp.”

The research she reported on at the American Geophysical Union meeting related to flows that are occurring beneath the seafloor of the southwest Pacific Ocean and near the Samoan Islands.

“It’s right next to this plate that’s sinking into the earth and generating a very different flow field,” Druken said. “We conducted the first laboratory experiment that looks at how a plume interacts with a subducting plate. That’s brand new.”

Now that she is back from Australia, Druken says she will probably spend the next 18 months analyzing the data from her experiments and writing her dissertation. Then she hopes to get a post-doctoral fellowship to continue her research in Australia.

“The culture in Australia is so laid back and toned down a bit compared to here. They have a little more appreciation for lifestyle there, and yet they still produce great work,” she said.

During her first visit Down Under, she traveled extensively, including trips to the Great Barrier Reef and the forests of Tasmania, as well as a sailing trip around the Sydney area. But her Rhode Island and URI roots are deep – she has four younger sisters, all of whom are either enrolled at URI, recently graduated, or on their way.

“We have a big family of girls, and we all love URI,” she said. “It’s been a great school for us.”