New Professor: Geodynamics


From Norway to Aachen

Copyright: Susanne Buiter

Dear Ms. Buiter,
in March 2020 - in the middle of the corona lockdown - you have taken over the teaching and research area "Geology - Endogenous Dynamics" from Prof. Urai. We are very pleased to welcome you at the RWTH in our department.

This is mutual and I was also very happy to start at the RWTH!

You are a geophysicist by background and have completed your PhD in Tectonophysics at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands in 2000. You spent your postdoctoral period in Switzerland (2000-2003), Canada (2003-2004) and Norway (2004-2006), and then worked for 16 years at the Geological Survey of Norway. For what reasons have you now decided on Aachen?

It was important for me that the RWTH has a strong profile in both applied and basic research. I also like the broad spectrum of research and teaching in geology and geography that is represented in the department and hopefully will offer many opportunities for collaboration. And of course, the fact that the Netherlands is nearby is of personal interest for me.

How do you like Aachen and the RWTH so far? Have you been able to get to know all your colleagues personally despite Corona? Where do you see points of contact for your research among RWTH colleagues?

I have been lucky to meet many colleagues in the meantime, although under the given circumstances some of these contacts are of course mainly online so far. It was also somewhat special to start a new job at the beginning of a pandemic. We are of course already used to working internationally online, but I am looking forward to closer contacts with colleagues as soon as possible. Certainly also to discuss research, because I see many links between my experiments in tectonic processes and the research in, for example, neotectonics, geophysics, geomorphology, basins and reservoirs, material properties, and so much more, in the Faculty.

What does your teaching and research concept for Aachen look like? Which focal points would you like to set in Aachen? Does the renaming of your teaching and research area also play a role? Are you going to redesign contents and topics in your teaching and what do you expect from your students?

In my research and teaching I will focus on processes, and their underlying causes, that lead to deformations of rock layers on different scales,with the aim to understand the resulting structures. This on the scale from the outcrop to the crust, which is part of Tectonics, to the lithosphere and the upper mantle, which is Geodynamics. This is also the reason why I renamed my teaching and research field "Tectonics and Geodynamics". I will use numerical as well as analogoue methods. The numerical experiments use my own finite element software SULEC, while we extend the analogue laboratory of Prof. Janos Urai for the analogue experiments.
In the coming years, I hope to start with experiments on continental extension, continent-continent collision, shear zones, and salt tectonics. I will also bring this quantitative approach to teaching, with new modules in Geodynamic Modelling and Plate Tectonics, while I will also continue with topics such as structural geology. And what I really hope is that students will become enthusiastic about tectonics and geodynamics and be willing to undertake the journey towards understanding how tectonics and geodynamic structures can be formed.

Before taking up the professorship at RWTH Aachen University, you were employed by the Geological Survey of Norway. What exactly did you do there and how did it differ from your work at the RWTH?

Norway is just great for geology, because it has everything! Old subduction, mountains (and a long debate about why they exist), rifted continental margins, seismicity, salt tectonics, landslides, and much more. Over the last years, I was responsible for the team that produces the geological maps of Norway, which meant that we dealt with almost everything in geology. The Geological Servey also publishes scientific articles, but one difference is of course that we had only little teaching. By the way, all geological data of Norway is openly accessible, including ArcGIS data. Just ask me if you want to know where and how.

For the last three years you have been Chair of the Programme Committee of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). What were your responsibilities in this position? How important do you consider European networking in the field of geosciences?

I think it is very important that everyone in the Geosciences has the opportunity to exchange experiences, in, for example, research, teaching, digitisation and exchange of open data. Bothto learn, but also to help others. Here the EGU, as the largest geoscientific organisation in Europe, can definitely play a role. The EGU is also very important on a political level, to exchange information on, for example on climate change, landscape development and usage, and geo-hazards, with all interested parties and with politicians, who can bring about change.
I have been active in the EGU for over 10 years, as President of the Division of Tectonics and Structural Geology, as a member of the Outreach Committee and for the last 3 years as Chair of the Programme Committee. The Programme Committee is responsible for the programme of the General Assembly with approximately 18,000 participants. My focus during these years has been on inclusivity, accessibility and ensuring that the thousands of people fit safely and comfortably into the building. Fortunately, inclusivity and accessibility are now receiving much more attention in our community. It is very important that we work together to ensure that everyone feels welcome at events such as those organised by the EGU, but also smaller workshops, and not the least, activities organised by universities. The last General Assembly of the EGU was in May and we were one of the first major meetings to go online in a short time. A huge challenge and I was very happy that "Sharing Geosciences Online" was a success.

In the "Applied Geosciences" teaching unit, you are currently the only professor - apart from Prof. Scheck-Wenderoth's professorship, which is, however, based at GFZ Potsdam. Can you recommend the profession of professor to women and what would you advise young women with this career goal?

Absolutely recommendable! I will not say that gender does not play a role in a job, because it simply does. But I am optimistic and believe that the RWTH will have a more balanced staff in the future. My recommendation would be, that if you would like to do research, to just do it. Talk to people who are a few steps ahead in their career to ask how they got there. The competition is tough regardless of gender and since every path is different, experiences can be very valuable.
Geology in general has several steps to take when it comes to diversity. It is not only about gender, but also about ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and other characteristics. It is important that we are aware of the implicit processes that have made geology rather homogeneous so far.

Thank you very much for the interview!