California State University, Northridge marine seismologist and geological science professor Dayanthie Weeraratne’s passion for her subject matter radiates like an earthquake’s P wave traveling deep into the Earth. But it wasn’t always like that. Originally a psychology student, she lost interest and settled into a job as a machinist.
Her passion for geological sciences erupted unexpectedly during a pleasure hike up Mount St. Helens. In 1980, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake had launched the largest landslide in recorded history and a volcanic eruption equal in power to 500 atom bombs.
“It’s the only major volcano in the continental U.S., and to see the devastation. … Miles of old-growth forest; trees as big around as my office … and they were blown over like match sticks by the pyroclastic flow,” said Weeraratne. “They were lying down and had been incinerated. All I could think was, ‘Where does the energy for a volcano come from?’ I wanted to know more about the interior of the earth.”
She entered a geology and geophysics program at the University of Oregon, and her entire academic outlook changed.
“I was excited about school… raising my hand in class, sitting in the front row, laughing at the teacher’s jokes. And I love it that much today … 20 years later,” she said.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at University of Oregon and her Ph.D. from Brown University, and she completed post-doctorate work at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Her ongoing research uses interdisciplinary techniques in surface wave tomography, shear wave splitting and physical fluid dynamics to study various geophysical problems.
As a professor, she said application of her work as a researcher within the classroom helps instill a similar passion in her students.
“One of the most inspiring classes I’ve had was when I left class to be on a research cruise,” she said. “While I was there, I talked to students via satellite. They really got a feeling for how excited I was about what I do. If I had stayed in class and just told them about seismology for 16 weeks, they wouldn’t have gotten as excited as they did watching me.”
Learning about Weeraratne’s fieldwork also makes the career seem more attainable to students, especially minority students. Weeraratne says geological sciences have an especially low diversity rate. Her most recent research, funded by a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation, includes an educational program (Geological Experience for Minority Students) designed to increase the number of underrepresented students within the discipline.
“When I tell students stories and explain geological concepts, I can put up pictures of myself and then they can relate to a real person—it’s not an arbitrary white male in a lab coat—they can see somebody they know, and they can visualize themselves doing it. It hits home.”
In the past two years at CSUN, she’s set sail on four research cruises, and has taken CSUN students with her each time.
“I always take students,” said Weeraratne. “It’s the reason to go … to inspire our future scientists. On a cruise, you learn everything firsthand. It’s nice to see them get excited about discovering how the Earth works. Everyone says this, but when a student asks you a question, and through their own curiosity and exploration, discover the answer … there’s nothing like seeing that light bulb go off. That’s what you live for as a teacher.
It’s just training for the day when they make a real discovery and move the field of science forward in a single leap.”