The 16th RPI for March - April 2018

Tiziana Vanorio - Professor at the Stanford Rock Physics Laboratory, Stanford University, CA

About Tiziana Vanorio

Tiziana got her MS and PhD from the University “Federico II” in Naples, Italy. She then joined the Rock Physics group at Stanford for her post-doctoral research, working on the rock physics of volcanic rocks and clay-bearing analogues. She started her career in Europe, in France, at the University of Nice Sophie-Antipolis, as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie awardee. Then, in 2008 she got the degree for a habilitation thesis based on independent scholarship, thus receiving formal qualification to professorship the same year. In 2013, she joined the faculty of the Geophysics Department at Stanford University where she leads the Rock Physics program, whose focus is on the understanding of the dynamic geophysical response of both rocks and materials to coupled rock-fluid-mediated processes. This development of this program has required building a unique laboratory that integrates experimental-based research, imaging, and modeling to understand how thermo-chemo-mechanical processes affect rock properties. Whether the goal is overseeing fluid and waste disposal, stimulating reservoirs to improve productivity, or protecting groundwater resources, studying fluid-mediated processes in rock formations is key to making conventional 4D seismic interpretation practices evolve while treating the properties of the rock frame as time-variant parameters. 

Tiziana is also being recognized for her innovation as an educator. As a faculty member, teaching is one of Tiziana’s responsibilities. Nevertheless, her primary pedagogical goal as an experimentalist is to broaden knowledge and access to laboratory facilities and their content. Since her arrival at Stanford, Tiziana recognized that one of the challenges in facilitating the process of learning experimental techniques and laboratory skills among early-stage or inexperienced students as well as across larger groups of students is the limited time for training and availability of the experimental systems. To broaden education opportunities in rock physics, Tiziana has created a virtual laboratory that heightens the transparency of experimental procedures and facilitates knowledge transfer. The virtual laboratory reproduces in form and function the Stanford Rock Physics Laboratory through interactive 3-D animated renderings of instruments. 3D computer animation can efficiently illustrate what happens inside core-holders and pressure vessels, thus lifting the idea of the instrument being a black box. Tiziana’s goal is to introduce students to the operation of laboratory instruments so that they can make an efficient use of experimental resources by allowing the first stages of experimental training to be done with virtual copies of expensive equipment. In recognition of this effort, Tiziana is the recipient of the NSF CAREER Award, the SPE Innovative Teaching Award, and is a Stanford nominee for the Stanford Gallery Walk, for reflecting on challenges and opportunities in laboratory courses and implementing a model of pedagogical approaches and innovative classroom ideas in geophysics. At Stanford, Tiziana teaches a laboratory course in rock physics, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, and an overseas undergraduate seminar introducing students to the volcanism and seismicity of the Mediterranean region and how they are interwoven with rock and/or material properties as well as the engineering of Roman maritime concrete.

Photo: The Stanford Rock Physics Laboratory

Pathways or recipes for your success in becoming a well-known name in the rock physics community

I do not think there is a universal recipe for success. If success is the fulfillment of personal and professional goals, then the ingredients of the recipe truly depend on our personal tastes. I am more inclined to think that our ability to succeed and thrive really depends on what works for us. So I can simply share a few principles that have worked for my goals. 

Discover inner strength and aptitude early in life — I recognized early a predilection for experimental investigations as well as an aptitude for physics and chemistry. Nevertheless, because of my natural tendency to have my feet anchored deep into the ground, knowledge and investigation needed to focus on tangible objects and result in applications. So I soon understood I would become an applied geo-. Be determined, perseverant, and very practical. Creating your path is also a matter of organization and setting priorities: while doing my PhD I looked for the best rock physics program that could suit my scientific interests (and love for warm climes … I am a southern girl after all!), then started applying for fellowships to support my endeavor. Less than ten months later, I was at Stanford University. Be forward-looking and embrace change. Steering a path that reconciled the needs of being a professor and the means of building a laboratory program was a more  convoluted matter — this path can be highly nonlinear as finding a nice balance between means and ends, is not always to the advantage of strategy. However, managing the process of living across two worlds provided me with a unique opportunity for interacting with an incredible set of scientifically and culturally diverse people — whether I interacted with classmates, professors, friends, mentors or colleagues, from each one I’ve stolen a little something. Whether it was research wisdom, expert insight, or a treasure of scientific heritage, taking the chance at knowing someone or something that is different from us is incredibly fundamental for our personal and scientific growth. 

Challenges you see in taking rock physics to the next level 

One of the most troubling assumptions in experimental work is that experimenters control the actual object of experimentation. Unless the object is perfectly homogeneous, elastic, and isotropic this is rarely the case, even less with rocks! As much as we strive to achieve controlled conditions in a laboratory set up, the response of the rock to an experiment highly depends on the heterogeneity of its fabrics, which exists over a broad range of scales — both spatial and temporal. This heterogeneity translates into apparently unorganized (i.e., scattered) data sets hiding higher-order relationships among rock properties from different scales (bulk vs. pore properties), which we are yet to discover. Mastering the trends between measured rock physical properties and geophysical observables has been a long-standing scientific challenge. The beauty, however, is that, as with many objects being experimented upon, rocks too can be manipulated. As dynamic sensing and dynamic 3D imaging of rock-fluid processes allow us to study rocks through iterative processes, we can start studying process control of rock fabric and seeking rules of causality between pore/grain surface modification (width, shape, surface area) and bulk geophysical parameters. In my opinion, this is the step forward to understand how rock-fluid interaction processes at the grain scale translate into macroscopic geophysical response. As operators need to monitor reservoir conditions frequently, real-time reservoir management will require rock physics interpretation techniques to rapidly control processes at depth and turn data observations into decisions. 

Photo: Professor Tiziana Vanorio and students in a BOSP Overseas Seminar
Photo: The Rock Physics group at Stanford

Advice for early career scientists (rock physicists, geophysicists, etc.)

Choose carefully what you like, something that is important to make an impact, then like what you choose! This is what I always tell students.  The main reason for this is that goals set for us by others hold little motivation. So making responsible choices gives us a head start to control and satisfactorily shape what we want to be. Choices, indeed, must be guided, and nothing helps more than being thirsty for reading fundamental articles or review papers.   

Second, through a PhD the student faces a longer path of education. Though it can be a rewarding one, the path of research is never smooth - we all (professors, too!) strive and plan for a happy path, but the reality can be very different. So we all must have the passion, the grit, and the curiosity to learn to pick ourselves up when we fall. In doing so, we must be extremely creative in turning a setback into an opportunity so as to find a new trail in our halted path. My point is that early-career students must truly love what research entails as well as be excited about it. This is the best way to insure we stay engaged in the topic, being reflective while still maintaining a perennial looking-forward state-of-mind to be ready to explore the outcome that the research path offers us tomorrow. 

We thank Tiziana for her continuous contributions to the rock physics community