A researcher leaves a legacy of expertise, energy, and empathy.
Recently, MSU researcher Min Chen contributed to a new seismic tomography of the magma deposited under the Yellowstone Volcano.
As Ross Maguire a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University (MSU), he wanted to study the volume and distribution of molten magma beneath Mount Yellowstone. Maguire used a technique called seismic tomography, which uses ground vibrations known as seismic waves to create a 3D image of what is happening beneath the Earth’s surface. Using this method, Maguire was able to create an image of the framework of the magma chamber showing where the magma was located. But these are not crystal images.
Thanks to these new images, along with key additions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that there is actually twice as much magma in the Yellowstone magmatic system.
“I was looking for people who are experts in seismic-based computed tomography, which is called waveform tomography,” said Maguire, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). “Min Chen was truly an expert in this world.”
Min Chen was an assistant professor at MSU in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Natural Sciences. Using the power of supercomputing, Chen’s method was applied to Maguire’s images to more accurately model how seismic waves propagate through the Earth. Chen’s creativity and skill brought these images into sharper focus, revealing more about the molten magma beneath the volcano’s stone volcano.
“We haven’t seen the amount of magma increase,” Maguire said. “We just saw a clearer picture of what was there.”
Previous images have shown that the Flaviston volcano has a low concentration of magma – only 10% – surrounded by a solid crystalline framework. Thanks to these new images, along with key additions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that there is actually twice as much magma in the Yellowstone magmatic system.
“Obviously, the new discovery does not indicate that an eruption is imminent,” Maguire said. “Some signs of changes to the geophysical network system to continuously monitor Yellowstone.”
Unfortunately, Chen never made it to the finals. His unexpected death in 2021 continues to send shockwaves through the scientific community around the world, which mourns the loss of his passion and expertise.
“Computational seismology is still new at MSU,” said Songqiao “Shawn” Wei, an Endowed Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences in MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who was Chen’s colleague. “Once the pandemic hit, Chen made his lectures and research discussions on Zoom where researchers and students from all over the world could participate. That’s how a lot of seismologists around the world came to know MSU.”
His meetings were a place where gifted undergraduate students, postdoctoral candidates, or simply anyone interested were welcome to attend. Chen had prospective students and invited seasoned seismologists from around the world to his virtual calls.
Chen was deeply concerned about the students’ well-being and achievements. He fostered an inclusive and multidisciplinary environment in which he encouraged his students and postdoctoral candidates to conduct well-rounded studies and build long-term collaborations. She also held virtual seminars about life outside the academy to encourage students to pursue careers and hobbies. Chen led by example: He was an avid soccer player and knew how to dance the tango.
Diversity in science was another area that Chen felt strongly about. She encouraged and championed research opportunities for women and underwriter groups. To honor Chen, his colleagues created a memorial society in his name to help graduate students increase diversity in the computational sciences and earth. In another tribute to his life and love of horticulture, Chen’s colleagues also planted a memorial tree on the street of the Engineering Building on MSU’s campus.
Chen is truly a leader in his field and has been honored to receive a National Science Foundation Early CAREER Faculty Award in 2020 to conduct accurate seismic imaging of North America to study the solid crust of the Earth.
“So much energy,” Maguire said. “She focused on making people happy when they were incredibly happy.”
Maguire’s research, which shows part of Chen’s legacy, was published in the journal Science.
“Magma accumulation at the depths of former rhyolite storage beneath the Flavistone Caldera” by Ross Maguire, Brandon Schmandt, Jiaqi Li, Chengxin Jiang, Guoliang Li, Justin Wilgus and Min Chen, December 1, 2012 Science.
“What Lies Beneath Yellowstone National? More Magma Than Previously Known, But It Can’t Erupt” Kari M. Cooper, December 1, 2012, i. Science.
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