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Ask-A-Scientist E3: Dr. María-Teresa Ramírez-Herrera, Earth scientist

Listen to our podcast episode or read the transcript below featuring Dr. María-Teresa Ramírez-Herrera, Earth scientist, as we talk about earthquakes, tsunamis, and doing science in Russia, Scotland, California, and Mexico.

I do what I love to do. I’m even paid for doing it.

So we thought, this is huge. This is something that hasn’t been seen since the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano.

Between the earthquake and the tsunami, there is time. Sometimes enough time to get to a safe place.

Tanya: Hi everyone, and welcome to Ask-a-Scientist, a Science Journal for Kids podcast where we explore what it’s like to be a scientific researcher. I’m Tanya Dimitrova and I’m here with my co-host Miranda Wilson.

Miranda: Hi, excited to be here today.

T: Today our guest is Dr María-Teresa Ramírez-Herrera. María-Teresa is an Earth scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She has worked as a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. She completed her undergraduate at the Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia, and her PhD in tectonic geomorphology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. María-Teresa’s research has focused on tsunamis, earthquakes, underwater volcanoes, and submarine landslides.

A volcano and the resulting tsunami is also the topic of her research paper that we recently adapted and published in a kid-friendly format. So today we will talk with María-Teresa about her work, but we will also get to know at least a little bit the person behind the professional scientist. Hi, María-Teresa, and welcome to the podcast.

María-Teresa: Hi, Tanya. Hi, Miranda. Thank you so much for the invitation. It’s my pleasure being here.

M: Absolutely, we’re happy to have you. So we’re going to start the way we always start and ask the question, what made you want to study earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes?

MT: Oh wow, that’s a good question. It can be a long answer, but I’ll try to make it short. Basically, I became an earth scientist because I grew up in Mexico City. From Mexico City, you can see two huge volcanoes. One of them is still active, Popocatépetl, and since a child, I wondered about that volcano.

Popocapétl (Credit: Smithsonian Institution)

T: So, growing up in Mexico, what kind of school did you go to and what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you always know you wanted to work with volcanoes and tsunamis or did that kind of just happen later?

MT: Oh, that happened later. I grew up, as I said, in Mexico and I went to a public school. I had public education from start-up until high school. The high school is a school that is associated to UNAM, to the university I’m working now on. And the interest for earthquakes and tsunamis started later. When I was, I mean, younger, when I was in high school, I wanted to be so many things. I wanted to go to anthropology, archaeology — that now I’m doing a lot of, I use a lot of techniques also related to archaeology.

T: And working with people.

MT: Yeah, and I work with archaeology, so it’s not so far from what I’m doing now. But yes, I had so many interests. I mean, I was interested in doing oriental studies because I was interested in the culture of Japan, China, etc.

But then I love fieldwork. I mean, I like to be outdoors and that’s how I was more inclined to do earth sciences because of that. It was a tough decision between archaeology and earth sciences, to be honest.

M: And when in your education did you have to make that decision?

MT: That was already, I had to take a decision when I was in high school because we have to choose an area. There is one that goes for the physics, mathematics stronger area and then there was the others. And I, in any case I could change but at the last year of high school, I had to already be more sure of what I wanted to do.

T: Right. And then interestingly, at least for us, you decided to do your undergraduate degree in Moscow. And you actually ended up studying in Russia in the late 80s, which was a time of huge transition for that country. What was that experience like?

MT: Well, I think I had such an interesting time there because, as you said, it was a time of changes. In terms of science, the reason for going there, apart from doing what I’m doing now, I love reading. So, since school, the school in Mexico, a high school, we have this subject about the world literature. So I was familiar already with writers from around the world and among those some Russian ones like Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, etc. And I was very curious about the culture of Russia. And when I was in high school, a professor from the Russian Academy of Sciences went to the university, to UNAM, to give a talk. I’m normally not that extrovert, I’m in the side of a little shy, but I thought this is my chance to ask him about how to study in Russia because, you know, I was young. And then you don’t think about that, oh I’m talking to this great scientist and known around the world. But I did ask him if I could study something related to the shape of the air and landforms and all that. And then he told me, oh, the university, the State University of Moscow, Lomonosov, which is the best, by the way, university in Russia, is probably a good place to go. And that’s how I pursued in having a scholarship going there.

And I, as you said, I lived through a time that was, there was a time of many political changes in Russia at the time. Very interesting.

T: Did you, did you have to learn Russian in order to study there?

MT: Oh, sure. Yeah. When I was in high school, I was already taking Russian at the university. And then when I went there, to Russia, I went first for a year to learn Russian. And they had that really good system — I don’t know now but at the time they had a really good system to teach Russian because you learn as a child that means that you learn first to talk. And then later you learn the grammar, but first you learn to communicate. As a child, I mean a child doesn’t know anything about grammar, right? But he’s just listening and repeating and that’s how we were taught. And then I later learned Russian and the subjects like mathematics, chemistry, physics in Russian.

T: Did you also end up reading Dostoevsky and Chekhov in Russian?

MT: Yes! And it’s very gratifying. Because you see the difference between living in Russian, and it’s a huge difference.

M: How many languages can you speak?

MT: Well I speak my native language, which is Spanish; Russian; I speak English, and I also speak French and I do a little bit of Portuguese and Italian because I have friends from Italy, Brazil.

T: Just for good measure.

MT: Yeah.

T: So how long did you live in Moscow and what was, what was life, how was life different in Moscow compared to Mexico City?

MT: I spent one year learning Russian and then there was five years of bachelors and I also got a master’s in science in geomorphology in Russia. So total was six years living there, so because I like this course it was also nice because I learned skiing. We don’t have snow in Mexico, so instead of swimming in the ocean, it would be like skiing in the wintertime.

M: That’s amazing. So after your time in Russia, you moved to Scotland for your PhD. How was that different than your experience in Russia? Was it a culture shock?

MT: You know, it’s funny enough, it would sound very strange, but when I was in Russia I visited several countries around Europe and Asia, but I’d never been to Scotland before I went living there. But Scotland to me felt like a home. It was, I still have such a love for Scotland and the Scots. It was really nice. I felt very adjusted to the place. I never felt like there was a cultural shock. Even if the language, I mean, because in Scotland they have a very, very different accent, a lovely accent, by the way, and I love it.

T: So after your studies, you began work at the University of California, Berkeley as a research scientist.

MT: I was very curious about going to California to learn more. I thought one, two years and it was more than one, two years.

T: They have ski in California too, that probably.

MT: Ah, yeah, you’re right – that, probably.

María-Teresa in the field (Credit: UNAM)

T: So just to complete your biography, now you’ve done a full circle and you’re back in Mexico, continuing your work as an Earth scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM. In addition to research and advising students, do you also teach regular classes there?

MT: So I’m teaching a class every semester and that implies also taking them to the field and also involves learning new techniques.

M: You mentioned that you really like to do fieldwork. How much of your time is fieldwork versus in the office writing papers and that kind of thing?

MT: Well, normally it varies, but for instance, it also depends. Well, normally we try to go during the no-raining season in Mexico, because it rains a lot here. From, let’s say, May on, it’s all rain, rain, and it’s very difficult to do fieldwork. Because we have to dig, you know, and then the rain starts. So I normally spend like, when we go to the field, we spend a minimum of two weeks in the field and then come back. And it could be like at least three seasons or four, sometimes; it depends it varies on the project. And then if there is an event like a huge earthquake or tsunami, then we go and do the rapid-response survey after the event.

M: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience as a woman in a science field? And you’ve experienced this in a lot of different countries all over the world. Were there challenges and difficulties that you’ve had to overcome?

MT: I think there were several challenges as a female scientist and even more in earth sciences. Because it was at the time (I’m really happy that it’s changing) it was a male-dominated environment. And I did face, honestly, some challenges. Also because in the US I was not even a female, but I was a Mexican female. And that faces also challenges. And we know that challenge as a woman, because I could see that there were differences in how we were treated as female in science. You have to be very very strong and stand up for your positions in terms of what you really think you are coming with in terms of science. Like demonstrate that you are really good. Something that a male scientist doesn’t have to do, because it’s just taken for granted that it’s good science because it’s from a male.

I never had a bad experience with my students which is good and I had many male students. So that was that’s that’s been very very gratifying. And this is why, this is probably one one of the parts I love working with my students. Because I think they are younger and open-minded. And it’s changing.

But yes, I did face challenges, frustrating, trying to demonstrate I am good and what I’m doing is good, also it’s good science.

T: So if you can, I don’t know, summarize it just briefly, what would be your advice to anyone who’s in a situation where they are a minority, be it a woman in a male-dominated field or being a foreigner or someone whose work language is not their native tongue. What would you say is the most important thing to do in order to persist, to persevere in this situation?

MT: One thing is, if you know what you do, you want to stand up for what you do. And then second, as a female one, well, unfortunately, it’s still the time when the perception is that moms, female, women that want to have kids, are the ones that have to be in charge of taking care of the kids. And that’s also a challenge. So you have to decide, or have a partner, a husband or whatever, or [same-sex] partner, that supports you because I say you have to spend time in the field. But if you want kids, just find the right support with your partner and with family around, friends, etc. But as you said, it’s a challenge for not only scientists but for many professional women.

María-Teresa and her students showing their study of the Tonga eruption
(Credit: en 15 dias)

T: So let’s move on now to talk about your research a little bit. We’ll start with the basics. What are tsunamis?

MT: Tsunamis are produced by several factors and those include earthquakes, that are the most common. Second common ones are sub-marine landslides and volcanoes, sub-marine volcanoes. The waves that we see normally are produced by the wind on the surface of the ocean, while a tsunami has an amplitude that is higher. It’s not the surface, but it’s the whole body of water moving towards the coast.

What happened with the earthquake is that it deforms, uplifts the ocean floor, and that moves the whole body of water. And that’s how the tsunami is moving towards the coast. And the closer it gets to the coast because there is less depth, the higher it gets and more dangerous. Tsunamis do not, they are not frequent, but they are the most dangerous of the natural phenomena and the most risky ones and they produce a lot of damage.

M: So Science Journal for Kids just adapted one of your research papers about an underwater volcano that created a tsunami. It’s titled How Can the Eruption of a Volcano Affect the Ocean Everywhere on Earth? And this was an underwater volcano in the Pacific island state of Tonga that erupted on January 15, 2022. And the tsunami it generated reached not only the Mexican coast but coasts all over the world. Now you said earlier that you do a lot of emergency response when something like this happens. Can you walk us through your personal experience on that day and what you did, how did you find out about it?

MT: I think it was a Sunday in Mexico, and it was a Monday in Tonga, when the eruption happened. So it was already in the news that it was a huge eruption. And because I’m in the also in the social media using media mainly for scientific reasons — and many scientists communicate through this using all this media — I learned there was the more details about the event. And then I quickly started to think and see there were effects in the atmosphere. There was a shockwave and it was pretty, pretty amazing to see that it spread the sound around the world. So that would affect also that shockwave, the ocean.

And then I and, not only me, my students, I called them and I said there was this huge event and it seems it’s affecting the ocean, and we should check the data for, because we have access in, at UNAM the, the tide gauge data are, the service for tide gauge data belongs to UNAM; and also earthquake data. So we had access and we started to look at the data and we saw that there was already starting after several hours a disturbance, but not only in the Pacific Ocean, which was very surprising. Because at the beginning I thought maybe it was just the explosion on the Pacific that is affecting the Pacific Ocean too in Mexico. But we analyzed the data also for the Caribbean Sea and also for the Gulf of Mexico and we saw there was an effect. So we thought this is huge. This is something that hasn’t been seen since the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in this 1700, I can’t exactly the year.

But we got really excited and we decided let’s work on this quickly and started analyzing all this data from the, also from the atmospheric data, meteorological stations and also the tide gauge data and try to tie it all together. And I put a paper quickly to communicate this with other scientists in the world.

T: So, speaking about volcanoes, we have a question from a listener for you.

Aili: Hi, I’m Aili and I have a question for you. Why do volcanoes get hot when they erupt?

MT: Well that’s a really good question. And probably the same one I had when I was a child growing up in Mexico City and seeing these active volcanoes sometimes, from time to time, getting hot and having this [smoke] coming out. And the reason why is because the material that is coming from under the surface that we call, before it reaches the surface is called magma. And the magma has temperatures that are much more higher because they are coming from deep in the earth, inside the earth, and the temperatures there are much more higher. So what’s supposed to be rocks comes. Magma is like a molten rock. It’s all molten, it’s liquid and it’s coming up. And that’s the reason why they are so hot.

M: You’ve done a lot of research in the Mexican Pacific Coast area and some of your research shows that coastal villages in that area aren’t really all that well prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis that occur. Do you have advice on how these types of vulnerable communities can help prepare themselves for these types of disasters?

MT: Thank you so much for that question. I really, really appreciate it because I work a lot on the Pacific Ocean and the coast of Mexico and in other parts of the world. But I learned in particular here that we don’t have prepared communities. Teaching kids since they are little about the different phenomena, and not only explaining the physical phenomena but what they can do to get ready in case of one of these events like tsunamis or earthquakes. Between the earthquake and the tsunami there is time, sometimes enough time to get to a safe place. But people have to be educated and learn with, I mean, at least that they live in an active zone. And [that] if there are earthquakes, there is a possibility of a tsunami.

Kids are, you know, I think they are very, very smart and they are the ones that are going to go home and communicate to the parents what they are learning sometimes. And this is another way to prepare communities. To me, it’s that they don’t need to wait for somebody to come and help them. I think they need to be ready. But they have to be taught how to get ready and how to read the signals. For instance, if there’s a huge earthquake and you are on the coast and the air is moving, so you know that the ocean is going to be also be affected. So you have to get to higher ground and away from the coast. And so reaching high ground and being safe with your family. And if you can, get your kids ready before leaving, like your most important documents, water, something to eat, I don’t know bars or something, something quick, because you don’t know how long you’re going to be far from your home if there is a disaster. But I think education is very important. So your podcast, your journal, I think what you’re doing is just awesome.

T: So that’s really great advice for people who live on the coast and are at risk for tsunamis. But earthquakes happen everywhere on Earth, or in many different locations. So do you have any specific advice also for listeners how to prepare for earthquakes when they live away from the coast? Is there something that they could do to be well prepared?

MT: It’s like the old saying, earthquakes don’t kill; buildings are the ones that kill. And once you have to know where you live. If you live in an area that is seismically active, if you are close to a fault, or even not a large fault like here in Mexico the subduction zone the earthquakes that happen here can affect Mexico City even if it’s more than 300 kilometers from the coast. So you need to know where you live first. You need to know your building. You need to know how to act depends on the building, on the situation. There is not one just, I mean you cannot say, for instance in the States it’s a “drop, cover, under a table,” because so many things can fall down and then when the air stops shaking then go out. But it doesn’t apply for instance for some areas.

Each area has specifics but my advice would be to know where you live first, second to have to get ready and know how to evacuate in case of an earthquake. And also, I think it’s been emphasized even more now that buildings have to be built and retrofit for these events, because it’s obvious, if you live very close to the fault, and we’ve all seen it now in Turkey, that unfortunately even if the law specifies something, there are so many other factors that can affect. So I think learning about your area.

Secondly, be ready when there is an earthquake. Know what to do. Depends on the situation. Maybe you are in a high rise. It’s going to be different advice for something that is on ground level, right? If you are closer to the exit, just exit the building and find an open place where nothing is going to fall. But that’s why I’m not… I don’t want to say something exactly, but just because it’s going to be a different situation. It depends on where you are. If you are on the fortieth floor or something, it’s not going to be the same. Yeah.

María-Teresa with her dog
(Credit: LinkedIn profile)

M: Thank you so much for that advice. It’s really important that people know what to do in the face of some kind of disaster. That brings us to kind of closing up our interview today and we have our final kind of pie in the sky question for you. Your research is really important to a lot of people around the world. If you had unlimited funds, millions of dollars, what research question would you want to answer? Where would you go with your research next?

MT: I think if I had a lot of money, I would expand my research to what I’m doing now in terms of finding out the largest earthquakes and how often do they occur in this area, because even though we cannot predict, at least we can say this is an area that every five, I mean, I don’t know how many years a big earthquake occurs. But not leave it there. I would expand my, this information to reach the people. Because if we produce papers, yes it’s fine, it’s gratifying to be acknowledged by the scientific community, but this information is for the people. So it has to reach people, otherwise it just a scientific paper, which is good, it’s excellent. But it’s much better if it’s going to be of use for policy makers, but even better if it’s for the people.

T: We couldn’t agree more. Thank you.

M: Did you know that you can directly read one of María-Teresa’s scientific papers, stripped from its complex scientific jargon and made understandable to readers as young as fourth grade in school? The link is in the show notes. You can also just Google its title, How can the eruption of a volcano affect the ocean everywhere on Earth? Or directly go to and search for volcano.

T: That’s all for today. This podcast was produced with help from our research assistant Natalia Torres-Bejar, sound engineer Maria Mikhailova, and hosts Miranda Wilson and me, Tanya Dimitrova. Thank you for listening. Subscribe to this podcast to receive notifications about the next episode of Science Journal for Kids, Ask a Scientist. Till next time.

How can the eruption of a volcano affect the ocean everywhere on Earth?

Title image from UNAM

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