Like most every child, Maggie Benoit had her eyes set on the stars, dreaming of one day becoming an astronaut. But instead of becoming a rocketscientist, she is now a rockscientist – or more specifically, a solid earth geophysicist.
A native of Hillsborough Township, Benoit recalls spending quality time with a telescope as a kid. Her father had studied Biology and Chemistry and did much to foster her budding interest, especially in planetary science. But it was not until she arrived at Trenton State College – as The College of New Jersey was then known – in August of 1995 that a science class inspired her to pursue a different course in life. Indeed, “Introduction to Geology” motivated the future TCNJ faculty member to explore a new area of study that would eventually become her focus.
“Sitting in that geology class, I realized I could combine my interest in physics and planetary science to study the earth,” she explains. “There are a lot of things we don’t yet understand about our own planet.”
In her junior year, Benoit was given the opportunity to complete an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks. The project investigated the depth of the crust mantle boundary beneath Alaska. “I wanted to make sure I really did like seismology and the opportunity to do research absolutely solidified that for me,” Benoit said.
Once again, her studies brought Benoit another life-changing experience: she met husband and fellow TCNJ physics professor Dr. Nathan Magee while participating in the summer program in Alaska.
After graduation, Benoit went on to Pennsylvania State University – one of the largest geology graduate programs – for her Ph.D. in Geosciences. One of the reasons she chose the program was because of the opportunity for travel to places as diverse as Africa and Antarctica.
While pursuing her degree, Benoit had a few brief forays into industry, interning with Conoco Inc. to research new techniques for finding oil and spending a summer in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Both were a lot of fun, but I realized I wanted to stay in academia,” she explains.
Armed with her Ph.D., Benoit arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study seismology of the Middle East and Africa as a postdoctoral fellow. After two years with MIT, she spotted an opening at her alma mater and seized the opportunity to head back to New Jersey.
“I knew I wanted to teach at a small college and having had such a positive experience as a student here myself, I wanted to continue to provide the same experience for other students,” Benoit concluded.
Now in her fourth year as assistant professor here at the College, Benoit has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to improve geosciences curriculum. “When students leave their courses, there seems to be a real lack of understanding about seismology, waves, and earthquakes,” she explained. “The grant provides a way to develop laboratory activities that are a much more fun and engaging way to meet the learning needs of students.”
In terms of her own research, Benoit has been involved in setting up a nine-station seismic network across Appalachia with colleagues from Yale University. The team recorded earthquakes over a year’s time and is currently analyzing the data in an attempt to learn more about the thickness of the earth’s crust. A few years back, she brought three students along to help install the stations and perform fieldwork.
Currently, Benoit is studying a group of volcanoes off the coast of Russia as part of a joint NSF-funded project with Rutgers University. “It is the most active volcano on earth and we are trying to understand why,” she said.
“I’d like to give students the skills they would need to be competitive when applying to graduate school and also to be successful once they get there,” Benoit added.
When she is not in the classroom or traipsing through Appalachia, Benoit is busy with DIY projects around the house, rediscovering her love of running, and being a mom to two children. “It’s a lot of fun to bring your kids to do field work,” she said. “My son is old enough to realize his mom is a scientist and knows a lot about rocks. He thinks it’s pretty neat.”
By Jessica Corry
For more information:
• Dr. Benoit’s collaborative research with students: video highlighting her 2009 project from TCNJ’s Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience (MUSE):
• Dr. Benoit’s profile from the TCNJ Magazine
• Dr. Benoit’s Interdisciplinary Course of the “People and Places in the East African Rift”