(Photo: Moh El-Naggar)

Soon after her family moved to California, Elizabeth Cochran experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Even though she was only in middle school, Cochran was struck by the power and potential devastation of the seismic event that killed 63 people and injured more than 3,700.

“With each subsequent earthquake, my initial interest grew into a desire to better understand these forces of nature and to minimize the impact of these events on communities,” she said.

Cochran has channeled that early interest into her role as a research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Earthquake Science Center, where she studies a wide-range of seismology topics from the geometry of earthquake fault zones to earthquake rupture properties.

“Earthquakes are an increasing threat to ever-growing number of cities throughout the U.S. and the world,” said Cochran. “Our goal is to reduce the exposure people have to earthquake damage while answering fundamental questions about why earthquakes occur when and where they do.”

To help reduce risk to communities, Cochran and her USGS and academic colleagues are developing and implementing an earthquake early warning system for the West Coast of the United States. The system, called ShakeAlert, will leverage existing networks of seismic instrumentation to rapidly detect when an earthquake has started and send alerts to people that shaking is expected.

Currently in the testing phase, the system issued a 10 second alert for the earthquake that hit Northern California on August 24.

In addition to this work, Cochran, in partnership with Jesse Lawrence, an assistant professor in Stanford University’s Department of Geophysics, created an innovative method of earthquake monitoring called the Quake-Catcher Network, which records moderate-to-large earthquakes and aftershocks.

The network gathers data from citizen scientists who install small, low-cost sensors externally to their desktop computers or internally to their phones and laptops. According to Cochran, these sensors become temporary seismic stations, enabling scientists to automatically monitor and retrieve data from six months to a year after an earthquake.

The sensors were first used in April 2008 following multiple earthquakes that struck Reno, Nevada, and have been deployed after several other earthquakes, including a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck New Zealand in September 2010.

The network has provided Cochran and her colleagues with rich data sets to map small scale ground-shaking, more accurately locate earthquakes and better understand and observe earthquake ruptures and seismic wave propagation.

Cochran said this data can also provide critical information to help determine where infrastructure such as power plants, hospitals and water lines should be built.

To increase the amount of data being collected by the Quake-Catcher Network, Cochran has been working with the University of Southern California’s (USC) Earthquake Center to install more than 100 seismometers in K-12 schools, museums and park visitor centers located in high-risk earthquake areas, including Alaska, California and the state of Washington.

“The Quake-Catcher Network is a real opportunity to engage people in the collection of data. It enables individuals to not only get ready for the next earthquake, but also better understand how earthquakes work,” said Robert Michael de Groot, manager of the Office of Experiential Learning and Career Advancement at USC.

“What has always struck me about Elizabeth is her ability to focus very intensely on the science questions that she is trying to answer while almost effortlessly pulling back and seeing the big picture and being able to communicate with the taxpayers the impact and value of the science,” de Groot added.

Cochran said earthquakes are “inherently complex, even chaotic, but also fascinating.”

“It is a challenge to decide what topics to devote my time to ensure the greatest impact on mitigating seismic risk,” said Cochran.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.