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Natural hazard scientist wins Zonta award - 26/05/2004

A scientist who describes her work as a "dream job" has won the 2004 Zonta Science Award. Ursula Cochran says her investigations of past earthquakes, tsunamis, and climate events in New Zealand is the perfect job package.


" My field work in some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the country, is balanced by laboratory, desk and microscope work," Dr Cochran says.

" Best of all, my work benefits all New Zealanders by increasing the knowledge and awareness of geological hazards."

The Zonta Science Award is presented every second year to a woman with a PhD who has excelled in pure or applied science, has excellent communication skills and is a good role model for younger women.

Dr Cochran, of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd (GNS), received the award from Governor General Dame Sylvia Cartwright in Wellington this week. There were four finalists.

Later this year she will use the $10,000 prize to travel to the west coast of the United States to work alongside the leading specialists in her field of investigating pre-historic earthquakes and tsunamis caused by sudden plate boundary movement.

While in the US she plans to visit four sites where scientists have identified evidence of plate boundary earthquakes and tsunamis.

Dr Cochran will also present results from her New Zealand research to an international conference and ask for feedback.

" This will help to ensure the work we are doing is in line with international standards. It will also increase the chances of getting overseas collaborators involved in our New Zealand work."

The world's greatest earthquakes have occurred deep under the Earth's crust on colliding plate boundaries. This includes the magnitude 9.5 quake in Chile in 1960 and the magnitude 9.2 quake in Alaska in 1964.

There is no evidence for this type of earthquake occurring in New Zealand since European settlement. There is scientific speculation as to whether New Zealand is susceptible to great earthquakes originating on the boundary between the Pacific and Australian plates, which runs through the country.

In 2002, Dr Cochran joined colleagues at GNS and collaborators at Auckland-based research group Geomarine Research for the first ever systematic search for evidence of these great earthquakes in New Zealand.

Her team collects drill cores from lagoons and estuaries in coastal areas. Using high-resolution analysis of microfossils in the sediment, they look for evidence of large and sudden changes in land level relative to sea level that appear to have been caused by earthquakes.

Over the next four years, her team plans to determine the size and frequency of past earthquakes in coastal Hawke's Bay and map the extent of any pre-historic earthquakes.

" This will improve our knowledge of the plate boundary under New Zealand, and our estimates of earthquake and tsunami hazard for New Zealand's east coast."

Ultimately Dr Cochran, who has BA, BSc, and PhD degrees, would like to attract enough research funding to support other young scientists into their "dream jobs".

The award is sponsored by Zonta International Club of Wellington, BP Oil New Zealand, and the John Ilott Charitable Trust.