Scripps Student Spotlight: Emily Wei

Geosciences graduate student uses research to unravel geological processes of the past

Emily Wei just finished her fifth year as a PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the UC San Diego. She grew up just about as far away from San Diego as you can get within the United States, in Sudbury, Massachusetts. She completed her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College in Vermont studying geology, and is now studying geoscience in the lab of Neal Driscoll, a professor of geosciences in the Geosciences Research Division.

Wei’s research focuses on sand and mud on continental shelves, and she studies marine sediment processes and stratigraphy, the branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale, in various locations. We talked to Wei about what brought her to Scripps, her passion for the geosciences, and more.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps to pursue a PhD?

Emily Wei: I owe much of my love of marine sedimentology and stratigraphy to Professor Pat Manley at Middlebury, who is passionate about seismic stratigraphy. My undergraduate thesis involved analyzing currents in Lake Champlain with acoustic doppler current profilers (ADCPs) and sediment cores; however, during Pat's marine geology class, we had the opportunity to collect compressed high intensity radar pulse (CHIRP) seismics and multibeam bathymetry for a class project. This class and Pat's enthusiasm hooked me on seismics and sediment cores—I knew that I wanted to pursue these techniques for my PhD. Pat was classmates with Neal Driscoll in graduate school and knew that he shares the same passion for seismic stratigraphy (and has the best CHIRP). I chose Neal's lab because of the numerous opportunities to go out to sea and because Neal's approach to research is process-driven; that is, his goal is to understand the processes that would produce the sedimentary deposits observed.


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

EW: My research focuses on marine sediment processes and stratigraphy in three locations: the Gulf of Papua in Papua New Guinea, San Luis Obispo on the Central California coast, and the Inner California Borderlands (the region offshore Newport to San Diego).


en: How did you become interested in this field?

EW: I knew that I wanted to study marine sediment processes and stratigraphy after my first field work experience with Neal Driscoll in the Canadian Arctic. He had the perfect project in Papua New Guinea that allowed me to compare data from sediment cores to seismic profiles.


en: What are some of the tools you use to conduct research?

EW: Sediment cores from Papua New Guinea are stored in Scripps' core archives. During the first three years of my PhD, I sampled from these cores, separated clays for X-Ray diffraction analysis, and then analyzed those samples for mineralogy at San Diego State University. The theme that ties all of my projects together are seismic datasets, which are crucial because they provide a snapshot of how sediment layers stack underneath the ocean floor. During the winters and summers, I would have an opportunity every year to conduct field work on cruises in the Inner Continental Borderlands. On these cruises, we collected seismic data and/or collected sediment cores. At the end of my third year, we collected the seismic and surficial sediment dataset for the project in San Luis Obispo.


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student?

EW: Currently, most of my day is spent processing seismic data, making figures, and writing. Last year, I was part of a committee of students and postdocs that organized the Plate Tectonics Symposium at Scripps, an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Plate Tectonics theory. As a part of that, we invited speakers, structured the symposium, wrote grant proposals, solved logistics, publicized it, and more.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

EW: I just started a new project looking at turbidites–sediment deposited by an underwater current flowing swiftly downslope due to the weight of the sediment it carries–in the Inner California Borderlands and how they may record past earthquakes and climate. I've gone on many cruises throughout my PhD to the Borderlands and to finally work on it is a real treat. Almost every day I find out something new. The most enjoyable part of my work is that through these datasets we can unravel what geologic processes have happened in the past.


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

EW: Pat and Neal have been immensely helpful. I also appreciate the dedication and hard work from my labmates (students and postdocs) who give me invaluable advice and have also helped me improve my writing and presentation skills. Every time we present at a major conference, give a presentation for departmentals or qualifiers, or defend, we give a mock-presentation.


en: What are your future plans?

EW: I would like to pursue a postdoc to expand my skill set. I would be very interested in learning about either computer modeling or new geochemical proxies.

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.