Geology professor Tanya Atwater, an expert in plate tectonic theory, recently received two prestigious national awards – adding to her already rock solid reputation.

The Geological Society of America presented Atwater with its Best Paper Award a paper completed with a college titled “Pacific-North America plate tectonics of the Neogene southwestern United States,” published in a 1998 edition of International Geological Review. Her second award, which Atwater said was given for lifetime achievements, comes from the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG). The SWG Gold Medal is awarded every few years and has in the past has been bestowed on women like Mary Leakey and Jane Goodall.

Grace Giles, a fourth-year geology major who assists Atwater in making animations to explain geological theories, said Atwater’s field of study explains how the destruction and creation of rigid continental and oceanic crust – on which all earth and ocean rest – result in the formation of mountains, basins, oceans and various other geographic characteristics over several million years. Giles said professors and teachers across the nation use Atwater’s animations as standard instructional tools.

Fault lines, such as California’s San Andreas Fault, are the boundaries between two plates. At the San Andreas Fault, for example, the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate slide past each other, causing the area west of the fault line to move north.

Atwater said the paper – co-authored by California Institute of Technology geology professor Joann Stock – was a compilation of various other geologists’ research about the fault lines and plate tectonics in Northwestern America.

“I’m just the reporter really,” Atwater said. “We just collected [North American geologists’] measurements – their best estimates of when the deformation [of plates] happened in their part and how much and so on … One of the things they want to know, besides figuring out their own mountains and their own things, is [to see] where it fits in the bigger picture. They’re always looking for some model like ours to put their stuff in context.”

Giles said plate movements in one area of the world will have impacts globally.

“Geology explains a lot of natural things we see like tsunamis and earthquakes,” Giles said. “Geology touches every [scientific field] from the chemical level to the physical one.”

Atwater said she arrived at Scripps Institute of Oceanography about 35 years ago, where she earned a Ph.D., only two weeks after the theory of plate tectonics was first announced. In the wake of the discovery, Atwater said she, as a graduate student, was able to participate in plate tectonic research on the same level as established scientists. She has continued studying the field, she said, because there is always more to be added.

“When the revolution [of plate tectonics] hit and we suddenly understood the earth this new way – 35 years ago – we didn’t know whether the theory would hold up with time and whether the plates would really be rigid plates,” Atwater said. “After all these years, every time we get a new database that someone collects, it makes it even more precise and it makes [the theory] still true. That’s why I’m so excited … I never thought it would come out this well. Good thing, because I spent my whole life on it.”

The geologist’s second most recent award, the SWG Gold Medal, is given to women who are pioneers of the field. Atwater said, as a woman, she experienced some prejudice while working in the discipline.

“The biggest problems were trying to go to sea on ships because, when I started in oceanography, women weren’t allowed on ships,” she said. “We were bad luck. They said it ruins the morale of the men … [women oceanographers] were breaking the mold of what ships looked like.”

Just as the dynamics of being a woman in science have changed in more recent years, Atwater said, so has the ability of geologists to visualize geological impacts. Atwater said she uses computer animation to explain everything from plate tectonic movements to tsunamis, like the one that recently hit South and Southeast Asia. Atwater said animations simplify complex theories.

Giles said Atwater is constantly looking for more ways to educate others through such things as her animations.

“She’s always working towards learning more about what she already knows,” Giles said. “She’s in high demand. Everyone wants a piece of her to pick her brain – but her first priority is teaching.”