“I want to make cities safer by studying seismic waves”

University of Helsinki

Debanhi Jimenez Reyes combines her passion for mathematics and geology by researching geophysical processes that affect populations around the world. She studies in the Master’s Programme in Geology and Geophysics to become a specialist in the field of seismology.

Debanhi Jimenez Reyes thinks that people should be more aware of the risks posed by seismic activity. (Image: Titta Kaltola)

Earthquakes vary from smaller ones that humans cannot even feel to ones that can devastate and demolish cities with millions of habitants. The intense shaking causes energy that travels through Earth in vibrations called seismic waves. According to Debanhi Jimenez Reyes, more attention should be paid to seismic activity.

“An earthquake is a fascinating geophysical process. There is a lot we know about them, but not everything. New details are yet to be discovered.”

People live in areas regularly affected by earthquakes despite the risks they pose. Originally from Mexico, Jimenez Reyes knows first-hand how hazardous areas with high seismic activity can be to local communities.

“Many families have lost loved ones due to earthquakes in Mexico. The capital and most populous city in the country, Mexico City, is located in a valley in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which makes it prone to volcanic and earthquake activity. By studying seismic waves and bringing the findings to public attention, unnecessary deaths can be prevented. Crucial precautions range from enhancing infrastructure to debating should people even live in certain parts of the world.”

Globetrotting while growing up

When it was time for Jimenez Reyes to have her quinceañera, a traditional celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, she opted for a year of studying abroad instead.

“I asked my parents if I could study for a year in the United States instead and they agreed. At the age of 14, I moved to New York by myself to study at an international boarding school.”

The year was such a positive experience that Jimenez Reyes stayed and finished high school in the US. She continued on to a bachelor’s programme in Florida to study marine science.

While studying for her Bachelor’s degree, Jimenez Reyes took a course in geology. It sparked an interest that grew into a passion for geophysics, which applies geology and mathematical methods.

“Math is a strong suit of mine. So much so that I completed simultaneously two Bachelor’s degrees while studying in Florida; one in marine science and the other in mathematics.”

Geophysics is a field of study that is crucial for understanding phenomena such as volcanic and earthquake activity related to plate tectonics.

Jimenez Reyes chose to further her education in geology and a chance encounter lead her to master’s studies in Finland.

“I was a laboratory assistant during my bachelor’s studies and got invited by my geology professor to a conference held in Puerto Rico. He introduced me to a teaching staff member of the University of Helsinki.”

Afterwards, Jimenez Reyes did some research on the University of Helsinki and learnt about the Institute of Seismology belonging to the Department of Geosciences and Geography. The Institute performs research, education, continuous Earth monitoring, and helps government and private organisations in projects requiring seismological expertise.

“The more I learnt, the more my interest grew. I was ready for another learning experience in a new country and in the autumn of 2021, began studying in the Master’s Programme in Geology and Geophysics.”

Exposure to many methods at an early stage of studies

In the Master’s Programme in Geology and Geophysics, it is possible to choose from four different specialisation options (study tracks): Petrology and Economic Geology, Hydrogeology and Environmental Geology, Palaeontology and Global Change, and Solid Earth Geophysics.

Jimenez Reyes chose the latter study track, Solid Earth Geophysics. It combines geology with geophysics to study the structure of the Earth’s interior and the physical processes related to its evolution.

Her studies took off in full swing with a week-long field course about geophysical methods at the Lammi Biological Station. It is used for the University of Helsinki’s field courses and as a base station for numerous research projects in the environmental sciences.

“It was a great way to get to know other students who became new friends. We got to familiarise ourselves with advanced equipment used to research for instance mineral deposits.”

The encompassing manner of teaching at the University of Helsinki has been a pleasant surprise for Jimenez Reyes, and she also found herself excited about a surprising subject.

“I took an introductory course to quantitative geology, where we were taught coding and programming. I had previously avoided coding based on a poor prior experience. The course shifted my thinking thanks to the attentive teaching. This time around I was proud of what I was able to accomplish with helpful guidance.”

As the University of Helsinki has a multidisciplinary approach, encouraging students to take courses across academic disciplines, Jimenez Reyes has been able to also deepen her mathematical knowledge to enforce the skillset needed for geophysical calculations.

“A mathematics course on partial differential equations helps me to understand the theory of seismic waves more in-depth. Instead of just being given the solution to work with, I want to learn the steps of getting to that solution by myself.”

Geosciences uncover global causes for concern

Geology and geophysics as fields of study deal with pressing questions concerning the whole globe from earthquakes to running out of natural resources due to overexploitation.

Jimenez Reyes has had eye-opening conversations with fellow students who are specialising in the other study tracks offered by the programme.

“As I am delving deeper into my chosen subject, my friends educate me about issues they are studying and passionate about, and vice versa. Issues related to geological and geophysical processes, such as the ethics of resource exploration and adequate safety measures against natural hazards, are causes of concern we should all care about.”

To tackle these global challenges, we need experts versed in modern geoscience who come up with solutions aiding communities at risk.

In her master’s thesis, Jimenez Reyes plans to focus on researching seismic waves. In the future, she wants to improve safety measures by raising awareness about the dangers of areas with high seismic activity.

“It has always triggered me how there is tourism and overpopulation in areas deemed unsafe by geologists. A lot of accidents caused by natural hazards could be prevented by listening to the science community.”

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