Faculty Spotlight: Michael Brudzinski

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  • professor of Geology and Environmental Earth Science
  • from Chicago, IL
  • teaches intro geology as well as advanced classes on geo-hazards and geophysics
  • does research on earthquakes, particularly in Ohio and Mexico


"I did my undergraduate work at a small school in Florida called Eckerd College. I chose it because it's known for its marine biology program, but I realized pretty quickly that I preferred physics over biology. For graduate school, I returned to my home state and the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana to work on seismology by studying earthquakes and plate tectonics. I then did several years of postdoctoral work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison preparing to be a professor.

"Physics research often focuses on very small things like atoms, but I really liked geophysics because it focuses on much bigger things that you can actually see. I was particularly interested in earthquakes since they have a lot of societal relevance. I found it fascinating that we were still unable to predict earthquakes, so learning more about was causes them could help keep people safe. There is still so much to learn.

"My postdoc was really that key time for me to ramp up for becoming a faculty member. I got an offer to join Miami in 2004, but I deferred my start date for a year as I still had some funding in Wisconsin. I used that time to submit some research grant proposals and prepare more for teaching. It was a great time to try some new and different things, both in my research and teaching, which really helped me hit the ground running at Miami."


"I teach intro geology, including an online class over Winter Term focused on environmental geology and natural disasters. I also teach a 200-level class focusing on geohazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. My upper-level classes are more focused on geophysics and advanced earthquake analysis.

"Geology has this perception of being about old dusty rocks, and so we are trying to change that image to show how we actually do the science by using computers. My courses use a lot of Google Earth, Excel, and web surfing to interact with real geologic data. My classes reflect Miami's effort to create more active and engaging courses, so students spend a lot more time doing than listening in class.

"I'm always trying to put students in experiences that are realistic. By creating 'authentic' experiences and assignments for students, we can ensure they encounter many different modes of learning during a class. By the time students reach Miami, they generally know how to listen to a lecture, take notes, review the notes, and respond on an exam. That's great, but it doesn't translate particularly well when they get into a job and actually have to deal with the complexity of the real world! I try to create experiences that are more like the tasks which they might get asked to do. And I try to help students deal with cases where there isn't enough information to solve a problem—teaching students why research and the creation of new knowledge is so important.

"I've been at Miami for about 10 years now, and it's the mix of both teaching and research that keeps me going. There are very few schools like Miami that have a similar commitment to both research and teaching. I love that Miami really tries to do both at such a high level. I work very hard at teaching—to continue getting better at it, and to engage students with better experiences. At the same time, I'm able to do some cutting-edge research. Both for me are equally important and rewarding."


"Although my research lately has been focused on human induced earthquakes, it's not an area I set out to work on. I have spent nearly my entire career studying subduction zones, places where the two tectonic plates collide and one gets shoved underneath the other. These zones generate really big earthquakes and tsunamis, like Japan in 2011. The Pacific Northwest has this kind of boundary as well; there was a very large earthquake and tsunami there in 1700. I've also worked on the subduction zone in Mexico, where there are more frequent large earthquakes, so I'm trying to help better understand what the hazards are in places like Oaxaca, Acapulco, and Mexico City.

"I've had many graduate students and undergrads help with subduction zone-related studies. I think it's important to get folks involved at different levels of their education. We've been looking at little tremor signals that happen right below where these big earthquakes happen. We often refer to the tremors as potentially tickling the dragon's belly. The shallow part of the fault closer to the surface is the dragon that sleeps for many years, but will eventually wake up and roar in the form of a big earthquake and tsunami. We are working on deciphering if the little tremors create enough stress over time to help trigger those big earthquakes, or if the tremors change pattern over time to at least provide some warning that the big earthquake might be coming soon. There are little hints lately that there are some relationships there, so we are pursuing that to see if we can use the tremors to better estimate the likelihood of a big earthquake.

"It was only a few years ago that I got interested in human induced earthquake research—when we started having some unusual earthquakes right here in Ohio! In 2011 there was a series of earthquakes that occurred in the Youngstown area. One of my students and I figured out a way to take a technique we had been using for the subduction zone studies and apply it to the more local earthquakes. It's a lot like an earthquake fingerprint scan that you might see on CSI: Miami. We take the wiggles we record from a suspicious earthquake and scan them through our database looking for matches. It's very effective at finding whether the earthquake is repetitive or swarmy, which is a key sign when earthquakes are being induced by oil and gas activities.

"There has been a real increase in these kinds of earthquakes in recent years as new technologies for recovering oil and gas have resulted in a lot of fluid being injected into the Earth. The injection is deep enough to avoid contaminating our drinking water, but in some cases it appears to be getting too close to faults. We are developing our technique to give the industry and regulators a better tool to monitor this. In the Youngstown case, regular techniques only found about a dozen earthquakes associated with the nearby fluid injection, but our technique found about 500!

"I'm a strong believer in 'whatever you do, work at it with all your heart'. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to my students, so that drives my desire to work with them on learning how to do great science. If I don't put enough effort into my classes, my students don't learn as much, they don't have meaningful experiences, and they don't use it in their careers. And I know that the research we are working has the potential to really help people, either to better forecast the hazards in southern Mexico, or to safely guide oil and gas development in Ohio. I know I need to relax a little more, but I just keep striving to make a difference."

Outside the Classroom

"Not surprisingly, it's a little crazy at home too. My wife is a geriatric physician that specializes in hospice medicine—she's amazing! So I help take care of our two daughters to give her time for work too. They are 5 and 3 and just starting kindergarten and preschool. It's fun to see the other end of the education spectrum. There's certainly something in common with my classes: more doing than listening!"

[October 2015]