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Jessica McBeck wins the ESRF Young Scientist Award 2024


Jessica McBeck, a geologist and computer scientist from the University of Oslo in Norway, has been awarded the ESRF Young Scientist Award (YSA) 2024 during the ESRF User meeting. She received the award “for her outstanding contribution to the understanding of multi-scale fracture network development in rocks.”

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When will an earthquake happen? Questions like this are central in Jessica McBeck’s research. And the ESRF is plays a big role in it: “The ESRF is extremely important in my research as it allows me to delve inside the rock in 4D, and in particular at the stress conditions at depths within the crust, where the most damaging earthquakes occur”.

McBeck has a background as a geologist and a computer scientist, developing software and carrying out experiments with sand, which is an analog for rocks. An avid programmer, today, she uses computer science to answer geological questions. “Without the ESRF, my research would be entirely limited to numerical models, and having only numerical models prompts the question of how realistic they are”, she says. McBeck is part of the team working in François Renard's ERC project Break-through rocks, which relies on a collaboration between the Njord Centre at the University of Oslo and the ESRF. Her experiments take place on ID19 and BM18.

As a student, McBeck focused on long-term fault development over hundreds and millions of years including tens of hundreds of earthquakes, but thanks to synchrotron analysis she can now study the damage that occurs on the rock in the weeks and months prior an earthquake.

The jury of the YSA highlights that “her combination of finite element modeling with quantitative measurements, and more recently machine learning, is a huge step toward a comprehensive understanding of the macroscopic failure of rocks”.

More than half of McBeck’s publications feature ESRF data and her work, according to the jury “potentially has a broad impact for the prediction of earthquakes”.

How close are we to predicting earthquakes? McBeck likes to talk about “forecasting” rather than “predicting”, as she explains that it is not possible to give an exact date and time when an earthquake will occur, but it may be possible to determine which areas are more likely to suffer an earthquake.

What is next for McBeck at the ESRF? Currently, her experiments at the ESRF do not include systems that include a kilometer-scale fault, as scientists must use a granite cylinder one or a few centimeters tall. In the near future, though, McBeck is planning to include more realistic fault zones in experiments at ESRF.

The latest paper that McBeck has published with work done at the ESRF is here:

Text by Montserrat Capellas Espuny. 

Top image: Jess McBeck on ID19 during an experiment. Credits: J. McBeck