With Fulbright, Bednarz to Conduct Research in Armenia

As a young girl growing up in small town Pennsylvania, Natasha Bednarz, MCAS ’17, investigated all things in her path. She explored the outdoors, collected rocks, and read for hours nonstop. Now, at Boston College, Bednarz has a Fulbright Scholarship to her name. After graduation, she will combine her lifelong scientific sensibilities, love of nature, and career goals into a high-caliber research project in the Caucasus region of Armenia.

The Fulbright Program is a highly competitive American scholarship program, which consists of merit-based grants for the international and educational exchange of students, scholars, teachers, and professionals. As a part of one of the most prestigious programs in the world, Fulbright scholars study, conduct research, and exercise their academic talents while abroad.

Bednarz, a geology major and physics minor, applied for a Fulbright Scholarship with several geological research experiences under her belt. Throughout the summer before her sophomore year at BC, she interned at the Jemez Pueblo Natural Resources Department in New Mexico. Bednarz aided earth scientists in water and sediment sampling, air quality testing, and data logging and processing. Moreover, she met with Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists and Pueblo representatives regarding local earth science initiatives.

“The experiences I had during the summer showed me the intimate intersection between humans and the Earth,” Bednarz said.

The following summer, she traveled to Guatemala to work with seismologists, volcanologists, and geophysicists in field work, volcanic observation, and in-field ash sampling. The most impactful experience Bednarz had that summer was in an isolated Mayan village located on the side of a volcano.

About three years before, the village had been decimated by a volcanic eruption—the entire settlement was swept away. The government did not respond to the disaster and, as a result, villagers had to grapple with intense geological hazards on their own, rebuilding from the ash up.

“Seeing the tangible impact that geological hazards have on a wide range of communities cemented my desire to focus on geological research,” Bednarz said.

In the coming year, Bednarz will use her Fulbright to join a team of researchers in Armenia working on the Transect Project, the most comprehensive exploration of the Caucasus’ geological setting ever undertaken. The Caucasus region is home to the Caucasus Mountains, which contain Europe’s tallest peak, Mount Elbrus. Like many other mountain ranges, the Caucasus Mountains were formed by forceful collisions of Earth’s tectonic plates.

Beyond its scenic and expansive mountain range, the Caucasus region is known for its political tensions. Russia, Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are connected by the mountains, but divided by centuries of political strife.

“It’s always been difficult for geologists and geophysicists to get a good look, comprehensively, at the geological system,” Bednarz said. “The political boundaries of these countries bar earth scientists from being able to explore across borders.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Transect Project will consist of the first large-scale, long-term investigation of geologic activity in the Caucasus Mountains. Geologists and geophysicists from the United States and the Caucasus nations will use the mountain range as a “natural laboratory.” By implementing data from over 100 new seismic stations in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, and Georgia, seismologists will work to gain a better understanding of tectonic activity, continental collision, and the nature of earthquakes in the region.

“The project is really exciting because it’s slated to produce first-order information,” Bednarz said.

Joining the Transect Project is only one part of Bednarz’s Fulbright project. Since the project involves scientists from all Caucasus countries, nations marked by centuries of disagreement, Bednarz will also act as a political evaluator for the project.

“I hope to politically evaluate the extent to which a scientific endeavor has the capacity to overcome political strife,” Bednarz said.

As a political evaluator, Bednarz will sit in on meetings, be involved in phone calls and correspondences, and take notes on the everyday interactions between scientists from various countries.  

“It’s really, really special and groundbreaking that these countries are working together,” Bednarz said. “To have an outside person come in and evaluate how it’s working—it’s very sensitive. I know I have to go about it very delicately.”

The third component of Bednarz’s Fulbright originated during a semester of research in BC’s geology department.  

At the beginning of her sophomore year, Bednarz enrolled in Exploring the Earth, a geology course taught by Alan Kafka, the associate professor of earth and environmental sciences. During one of the course’s preliminary lectures, Kafka referred to one of his favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Bendarz’s ears perked up—she was in the midst of reading the non-fiction book, which intersects metaphysics and the philosophy of science throughout an epic, cross-country motorcycle ride.

After class, Bednarz spoke to Kafka about the book. Zen marked the beginning of a mentorship for Bednarz and Kafka. During the fall of her junior year, she reached out to Kafka about conducting research.

“He welcomed me right on board,” Bednarz said. “I did independent research with him in the spring of my junior year, and I’ve done my senior thesis with him this year.”

Bednarz’s research focuses on earthquake frequency and forecasting, combining her interests in geology and physics. Specifically, she uses cellular seismology to assess relationships between earthquakes in a given region over time.

Conceived by Kafka, cellular seismology is an analytic process in which seismologists systematically investigate the relationship between locations of past and future earthquakes in a given region. Cellular seismology aims to improve earthquake forecasting and form the basis of seismic hazard assessments, which save lives and protects infrastructure by demarcating zones of seismic danger and establishing requirements for earthquake-safe architecture.

After her Fulbright year, Bednarz plans on enrolling in a graduate program to earn an advanced research degree. But for now, she is excited to see how the Transect Project will pan out, and hopes that political and geological progress will be made in the Caucasus.

“Despite their human and political differences, these nations face common geological risks in earthquakes,” Bednarz said. “This geological phenomenon has the power to bring them together in addressing it, and that’s an incredible thing.”

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

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