UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
October 2009
UH Geophysicist Introduces Students to Fun Science

By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Using high-tech radar and seismic imaging equipment local high school students will get a peek at what lies beneath the surface of downtown Houston as part of an applied science presentation by a leading geophysicist at the University of Houston.

The Oct. 28 event, “Extreme Geophysics: From Exploring Maya Ruins to an Arctic Mars Colony” is sponsored by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) and is designed to show the practical applications of science and give them some hands-on learning experience with state-of-the-art equipment. More than 200 Houston-area high school students are slated to attend.

With ground-penetrating radar instruments that can see up to 10 feet below the surface and seismic recorders and sensors, groups of students will get to see what lies beneath the floor of the convention center. The teens may not find buried treasure or Jimmy Hoffa, but they will get a valuable science lesson.

“We want to show that science is fun and interesting and not nerdy,” Stewart said.

Stewart, who applies his geophysical expertise in fields as diverse as space exploration and archeology, is especially well-suited to deliver that message. He was one of a tiny handful selected as an astronaut for the Canadian space program.

Although Stewart was not selected for a space mission, he did test space suits in Mars-like conditions at a NASA base in the Arctic to assess whether astronauts could perform geological studies while wearing bulky space gear.

Stewart also has trekked to the rainforests of Belize to help archeologists unravel the mysterious disappearance of an ancient civilization. Using seismic imaging, he could scan Mayan pyramids that were still buried, intact and untouched by excavation.

Seismic data can provide a rough sketch of the ruins – including the location of tombs and burial chambers – to help future archeological digs.

Stewart will discuss these ventures with students during the presentation.

His enthusiasm for the profession and his dynamic speaking will make him a hit with students, said Lisa Buckner, the SEG volunteer organizing the event.

“I think the students will be really interested in hearing about all the different ways geophysics has been applied by just one person, and Stewart isn’t done yet,” said Buckner, a 1991 UH geophysics alum and a seismic data team leader with the Hess Corporation.

Stewart is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of Exploration Geophysics and director of UH’s Allied Geophysical Lab. His work involves finding more advanced seismic imaging methods to unlock new oil and gas deposits deep beneath the Earth’s surface. His research is especially vital in deep-sea exploration.

He received a Ph.D. in geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a professor at the University of Calgary before coming to UH in 2008.

The “Extreme Geophysics” event is part of SEG’s week-long annual conference, taking place this year at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. Stewart’s presentation is Oct. 28 at 10am.

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