Meet our Peirce Scholars: Katherine Guns

Katherine Guns stands next to red rocks formationsDegree Program: PhD

My fondness for geology began with my parents toting me along on annual summer trips to visit family in Idaho and Montana. My earliest memory of rocks occurred at my Granddad’s house on the shores of Flathead Lake in Montana, where my older brother and I would spend hours trying to find the coolest looking rock amongst the smoothed metasedimentary cobbles and pebbles. He would find one that looked like a perfect parallelogram (cut by lovely conjugate fractures) and I would counter it with one shaped like an ostrich egg, except it had a gorgeous quartz vein running through the center, on and on until we had buckets of amazing rocks to look at and compare.

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That was just a minor infatuation, however. My true dreams of becoming a geologist were jumpstarted in my fourth grade Earth Science class, when researchers from the USGS Menlo Park Office visited our school. They brought with them several props to help gain our interest and attention, one of which was a classic shake table and liquefaction demonstration. I recall watching the man turning a knob and then telling us to watch the small, doll-sized house sitting on the sand’s surface, and before our very eyes it started to sink into the liquefied sand mixture. He explained that the shaking simulated what happens during an earthquake and that liquefaction was one of the main shaking hazards we had to be aware of in the San Francisco Bay Area. He talked to us about the San Andreas Fault, and how earthquakes have happened along the fault for millions of years, and how they had caused destruction in nearby cities in the more recent events of Loma Prieta and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquakes. I distinctly remember raising my hand at that point and asking, both out of a sense of fear and a stronger sense of curiosity, “Do we know when the next one is due?”

That was it. I was a goner. Later that year we went on a field trip to see the San Andreas Fault itself, and I was amazed to find that there were actually clues on the surface that could help you find where the fault was! Clues like sag ponds, and preferentially oriented shutter ridges, and offset streams and fence lines—even as a 10 year old, I wanted to go fault hunting. And now here I am, a childhood dream starting to come to life, as I work as a PhD student to try and better understand fault systems in the Western U.S. using surface features and surface dating techniques.