Ph.D. Spotlight: Kyle Murray

Kyle Murray

When Kyle Murray was in his first year of undergraduate studies at Montana State University in Bozeman he was majoring in electrical engineering, but was uncertain whether or not it was the right fit.   Murray decided he needed to step away from school for a little while and take stock of his options. He stepped fairly far away from Bozeman and spent four months rock climbing in South America. When he returned to Bozeman, the rocks had gone to his head and he changed his major to geology.

After graduating from Montana State with a B.S. in Geology, Murray went to Japan where he taught math and science at an international school. “I knew I wanted to go to grad school,” says Murray, “but I also knew I wanted to do something different and interesting first for a couple of years.” In keeping with Murray’s pattern, that seeming detour led him to his next step. “While I was teaching in Japan I found a four-month field experience at the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park,” explains Murray. “I lived on the crater rim of Kilauea and did research that led directly to my interest in geophysics.”

From Japan (and Hawai’i) Murray went to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, where he earned an M.S. in geophysics. “While I was at New Mexico Tech I learned that I really like doing research,” says Murray. “When I was trying to decide where to go for a doctorate, I met Professor Lohman at a conference and her research sounded interesting.” So Murray applied to five schools in the West and to Cornell. When it came time to decide, he chose to move to Ithaca and work with Lohman.

Murray is now in the fourth year of his Ph.D. studies in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, working toward a doctorate in geological sciences. His focus is on improving methods for interferometric  synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) data processing and time series analysis to study groundwater and tectonics. InSAR is a remote sensing technique that is used to measure surface deformations of the Earth as small as the millimeter-scale over a span of days or even years.

The radar waves used to create InSAR images pass through the atmosphere on their way from the satellite to the ground and then from the ground back to the satellite. In these passages through the atmosphere the velocity of the radar waves can be affected by air temperature, atmospheric pressure, and the presence of water vapor. These velocity changes lead to inaccuracies in measurement—they make the data “noisy.”

A major focus of Murray’s work is creating methods of getting rid of as much of this noise as possible. Murray’s earlier work resulted in a paper with Lohman showing that the rainy winter of 2017 had reversed some of the drought-accelerated subsidence in the Tulare Basin of Central California. Recently, Murray has shifted his geographic area of study to Oklahoma, where he and Lohman will be using InSAR  data to try to quantify the effect of fluids on faults. “InSAR data from Oklahoma is far noisier than InSAR data from California due to atmospheric interactions,” says Murray. “We want to use our work here as a test case for new methods of getting rid of some of the noise.”

If their work is successful, Lohman and Murray will help make clear the effects of fluid on faults in Oklahoma as well as create a tool for researchers around the world to use when they collect and process InSAR data from similarly “noisy” areas of the Earth.

Murray hopes to receive his Ph.D. in January of 2020 and continue on to a postdoctoral research position and an eventual tenure-track academic position.

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