College of Fellows Distinguished Lecture Series Speaker

Karen Fischer
Brown University
United States of America
Primary Affiliation: Study of the Earth's Interior

The waves that emanate from earthquakes are capable of terrible destruction.  One key goal of  seismology is to understand the drivers and processes of fault rupture, the ground motion it produces, and how to mitigate its effects, for example through emerging approaches such as earthquake early warning.  Earthquake waves are also a powerful tool for imaging the Earth’s interior.  Another grand challenge in seismology is to map variations in seismic wave velocities and energy absorption inside the Earth, and to relate these structures to mantle convection, the motion of the tectonic plates, and their dramatic consequences including earthquakes, volcanoes and mountain-building. 


Dr. Karen M. Fischer is a seismologist who studies the structure and dynamics of Earth's interior using waves from earthquakes and other sources that travel throughout the Earth.  Her work focuses on understanding the lithosphere and asthenosphere, how these layers are created, deform and evolve over time, and their roles in plate tectonics and mantle convection.  

Dr. Fischer is the Louis and Elizabeth Scherck Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences at Brown University.  She majored in Geology and Geophysics at Yale University where she discovered she could combine her love of physics and math with studying processes like earthquakes and plate tectonics. She earned her Ph.D. in Geophysics from MIT, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and in 1990 joined the faculty in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University where she has happily remained.   

Dr. Fischer and her group analyze and model large datasets of broadband waveform data to measure the structure of the crust, the mantle lithosphere and the asthenosphere, including the signatures of present-day and ancient plate boundaries, mantle flow and mantle melting processes.  Her research has included field deployments of seismometers to study the structure and evolution of the North American continental lithosphere and mantle dynamics and melting in the Nicaragua-Costa Rica subduction zone. Her work also involves the development of new methods to measure Earth structure with seismic waves. 

Dr. Fischer co-leads Dynamic Earth in the 21st Century, a NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) run in collaboration by the Brown Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and the Leadership Alliance (  She is also the Director of Undergraduate Studies for her department, and she enjoys teaching courses that range from an introduction to Earth science to advanced seismology.   

Dr. Fischer is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and is the recipient of the Harry Fielding Reid Medal from the Seismological Society of America.  She has served as the President of the AGU Seismology Section, and she presented the 2016 AGU Beno Gutenberg Lecture.  At Brown her work has been recognized with the Royce Family Professor in Teaching Excellence and the Karen T. Romer Award for Undergraduate Advising and Mentoring.