D. Sarah Stamps


Committee for Research and Exploration and National Geographic Society/Waitt Grantee


Photograph courtesy D. Sarah Stamps


Photograph courtesy D. Sarah Stamps

Place of Birth: Nashville, Tennessee

Current City: Los Angeles, California

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

When I was in third grade, my teacher informed us that rainforests were in danger of being destroyed, and someone needed to save them! Ever since then, I have wanted to be an earth scientist and contribute to making the planet a better place. Later on, in high school, I was introduced to geology and geophysics at the University of Missouri, Rolla, called the Jackling Institute. After scientists showed us an image of a fault deep within the Earth, I was completely hooked on geophysics.

How did you get started in your field of work?

As an undergraduate at the University of Memphis, I worked with Professor Smalley on plate tectonic research projects using GPS data processing, computer programming, and basic research techniques. I received funding from the National Science Foundation to work with Dr. Pamela Jansma and Dr. Glen Mattioli on Caribbean plate tectonics, an amazing introduction to GPS fieldwork!

What inspires you to dedicate your life to geophysics?

Advancing the field of geophysics will encourage scientists worldwide to build structures and transportation systems that will withstand natural hazards. As a professor of geophysics, I can both work on these problems and train scientists to have the expertise needed to identify hazards, decipher their underlying physics, and communicate pertinent information to those who can create a structurally safer world for humanity.

What's a normal day like for you?

Wake up to my smartphone alarm and immediately check email. Are there any emails from researchers to which I need to respond? Did the Ugandan team succeed in their mission to climb the Rwenzori Mountains and replace GPS batteries? Was the paper accepted? Has my data stopped processing? I get a lot of information through emails and enjoy keeping up with the pace. I rotate between several major tasks: planning GPS campaigns, modeling GPS data or new geodynamic models that aim to explain the GPS data, creating presentation materials for conferences, building new collaborations and projects by email and Skype, working with colleagues on existing projects, working with students to guide their development as scientists, writing papers, writing proposals, and promoting earth science education capacity in East Africa.

Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?

I have always looked up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because he took a stand for what he believed was right—despite the risks to him—and made an positive, long-lasting, impact on the world.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

The most challenging experience in the field was driving through a rift valley—for 4 to 5 hours—full of volcanic ash that was blowing everywhere, in 100 F+ temperature, and without having had lunch. Staying hydrated and keeping up one's energy is essential when working in hard conditions. For my job, field activities range from hiking up steep, slippery slopes for days to install one GPS station to lecturing at high schools in the hopes of inspiring students to pursue studies in earth sciences.

What are your other passions?

I love dreaming of ways to turn trash into green energy and figuring out how to remove microplastics from our environment.

What work did you accomplish with the grant from National Geographic?

Working with a team in Madagascar from the University of Antananarivo, we installed the first high-precision, countrywide geodetic network in Madagascar to test if the island is breaking apart and forming a new plate boundary. We used advanced GPS instruments to first measure the network in 2010 and trained the first Malagasy student to learn GPS geodesy, Mr. Tahiry Rajaonarison. In 2012 we measured the network again and calculated a preliminary velocity field for Madagascar.

What project will you work on next?

In areas where the tectonic plates are moving slowly, like Madagascar, it takes up to 6 years of GPS measurements to determine how the surface is deforming. We have only measured the new Malagasy Geodetic Network two times, hence our first objective is to measure the sites again, possibly in 2014 and again in 2016. Also, the University of Antananarivo is interested in building a new GPS geodesy program so we will continue our collaboration and advance the field of geodesy in Madagascar.

Follow her on Twitter.

In Their Words

I know that advancing the field of geophysics has positive impacts for the world.

—D. Sarah Stamps

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