Mathematician Helps Reveal Mysteries Beneath Earth's Surface
July 22, 2013
Dr. Susan Minkoff builds complex mathematical models to describe physical phenomena, such as how seismic waves and fluids travel through the Earth.
The region below the surface of the Earth is a complicated place, with layers of rock, fluids and different types of soil that all behave in unique ways.
So when energy companies need to drill through that subsurface to get to oil and gas deposits, they naturally rely on the expertise of geoscientists to help safely and efficiently navigate the underground terrain.
But they also need mathematicians like Dr. Susan Minkoff.
“My training is in mathematics, but I’m very interested in real-word problems in geosciences and other areas, such as optics,” said Minkoff, who recently joined the UT Dallas faculty as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.
Minkoff uses complex equations to create mathematical models that describe various types of physical phenomena, such as how seismic waves and fluids travel through the Earth. Her research has applications in the oil and gas industry, where an understanding of the layout and behavior of subsurface regions is critical.
“Based on real or simulated data, I try to come up with a mathematical model and then figure out an algorithm, or computer program, that can solve the equations in that model,” Minkoff said.
Most of the solutions that result from these kinds of realistic simulations are only approximations. Although the solutions will never be an exact description of what’s happening below ground, her research aims to describe conditions as accurately as possible.
Dr. Susan Minkoff
TITLE: Professor of mathematical sciences; affiliated professor, Department of Geosciences
RESEARCH INTERESTS: Numerical analysis, scientific computing, numerical modeling for geoscience applications
PREVIOUSLY: University of Maryland, Baltimore County
“Part of the reason is that the medium you are working with – the Earth – is very complicated,” Minkoff said. “The answers you get will always be approximate, but as an applied mathematician, I try to make that error smaller, or at least small enough that we can live with it.”
Minkoff’s research includes working on problems where several scales are involved, from tiny pores in underground layers of earth to miles-long seismic waves caused by earthquakes or drilling operations.
“In addition to working on different scales, I also like coupling together different kinds of physics. It’s called multiphysics modeling,” she said.
For example, the process of drilling wells and extracting oil and gas can lead to the ground shifting and compacting, which changes soil properties and the way fluids flow through the subsurface. Minkoff uses mathematical equations to try to describe this behavior.
“I’m interested in how mechanical deformation of the ground affects fluid flow. These are two processes that occur together, each with their own physical principals that must be combined if you’re going to accurately model the behavior of the system,” Minkoff said.
“There’s interesting physics involved, but also interesting mathematical questions.”
Minkoff was a magna cum laude graduate of Duke University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science. She received a master’s degree and PhD in computational and applied mathematics from Rice University in Houston and completed postdoctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin and Sandia National Laboratories.
“I’ve been interested in math since I was a kid,” Minkoff said. “I always wanted to be a mathematician. I like the fact that applied math can have a big impact on a lot of real-world problems.”
Prior to joining the UT Dallas faculty, Minkoff was a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“I’m glad to be back in Texas, the center of the geosciences world,” she said. “There are lots of people in Texas who are doing geoscience modeling and who are interested in earth-science problems.”