When Wen-lu Zhu picks up a rock, she sees more than a static object. Each rock was shaped by powerful forces deep in the Earth’s crust and mantle. For her, these rocks offer a window through which she can examine how the Earth works. They provide insights into the eruption of volcanoes, the causes of earthquakes, or the formation of hydrothermal vents. But in order to open this window, she must bring the rock into the laboratory and examine its physical characteristics or mechanics.
X-ray synchrotron image of an intact Darley Dale sandstone sample. The lighted area represents pore space.
Many factors may play a role in shaping a rock while it is within the Earth’s crust or mantle. Extreme temperatures, pressure and, stress may reshape or deform it. Chemical reactions with surrounding fluids may alter its composition. All of these processes take place well beyond our reach. So instead of trying to unzip the crust and peering inside, Wen-lu and her colleagues recreate in the laboratory the environment that the rocks experienced. They raise the temperature, increase the pressure, or twist the rock then examine how each of these factors affects its structure. By testing how each one of these factors affects the rock, Wen-lu and her colleagues can determine the dominant forces that shape it.
When Wen-lu arrived at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, she turned her attention to the rocks found around hydrothermal vents.
Wen-lu working in her laboratory.
One of the most important structural components of the rocks she is studying is their pore geometry. The rocks contain pores or holes in them which can be large enough to see or can be microscopic. If the pores are interconnected, the hydrothermal fluid can pass right through the rock. The greater the porosity (percentage of empty space in the rock), the more hydrothermal fluid can pass through and the more material the fluid picks up and deposits in the rocks.
Stereo 3-D microstructure of a deformed Darley Dale sandstone sample. Lighter area represents pores.
To determine the porosity, Wen-lu and her colleagues construct an image of the rock’s internal structure using a CT scan (x-ray computed tomography). This device is similar to the ones hospitals use to find tumors and bone fractures. Another important physical parameter that tells how fast a fluid can flow through a rock is the rock's permeability. They use a gas flow meter to measure the rocks permeability or speed in which material can flow through the rock. Currently they are examining the structure of the rocks at room temperature and at one atmosphere of pressure. In the future, they plan to heat the rock up to 350°C, which is the temperature the rocks experience in the hydrothermal vents.
- Associate Scientist, Department of Geology and Geophysics
- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
More about Wen-lu
Read an interview with Wen-lu.
Get more info on Wen-lu's background.
- Picture Gallery
See images of Wen-lu at work.
- Learn More
Learn more about Wen-lu's field
- Wen-lu's Calendar
See Wen-lu's typical work week.
- Related Links
Other sites related to Wen-lu's career.
More Remarkable Careers
- Jo Griffith
- Principal Illustrator, Scientific and Oceanographic Data
Technical illustrator Jo Griffith hasn’t picked up a pen in over five years. Instead she uses a variety of computer programs to create graphs, maps, and illustrations for researchers.
- Dawn Wright
- Associate Scientist, Geography/Marine Geology
Master Lego-constructor and former bicycle-racer Dawn Wright has immersed herself in two disciplines. As a geologist, she is studying the cracks that form in the seafloor along the mid-ocean ridge. As a geographer, she is developing software that oceanographers are using to interpret seafloor data.
- Lauren Mullineaux
- Senior Scientist, Marine Biology
Lauren Mullineaux’s research group studies a side of benthic organisms (animals that live on the seafloor) that until recently has received little attention.
- Margaret Leinen
- Assistant Director for Geosciences
As a scientist, Margaret Leinen studied sediments that have accumulated on the ocean floor. Now as the Assistant Director of Geosciences at the National Science Foundation, she oversees programs in Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean, and Environmental Sciences. She is also working on initiatives to bring more women and minorities into these fields.
- Amy Bower
- Associate Scientist, Physical Oceanography
Amy studies the interactions between ocean currents and climate. These interactions are very complex.
- Melanie Holland
- Faculty Research Associate, Microbial Ecology
Melanie Holland studies the microbes that thrive in scalding temperatures surrounding hydrothermal vents. These amazing organisms not only reveal important information about the vent communities, they may also provide insights into the origin of life on Earth and the possible existence of life on other planets.
- Debby Ramsey
- Third Engineer, Marine Crew
As Third Engineer onboard the Research Vessel Thomas G. Thompson, Debby Ramsey helps keep all of the equipment that has moving parts running smoothly.
- Emily Klein
- Professor of Geology, Geochemistry
Emily collects rocks from the deep seafloor. The chemicals that make up the rocks provide clues to how the oceanic crust is built.
- Rose Dufour
- Ship Scheduler and Clearance Officer, Ship Operations and Marine Technical Support
Rose Dufour and her job-share partner Elizabeth Brenner create the schedules for four research ships. The challenge is to keep the scientists, funding agencies, and foreign governments happy.
- Maya Tolstoy
- Research Scientist, Geophysics
Marine seismologist Maya Tolstoy helps find active volcanoes on the seafloor by listening for their eruptions.
- Ashanti Pyrtle
- Assistant Professor, Aquatic Science
Ashanti Pyrtle studies the fate of radioactive material that enters rivers, lakes, and oceans. She also advises minority science students on how to navigate through graduate school and prepare for a career afterwards.
- Kathryn Kelly
- Professor (Affiliate), Physical Oceanography
Kathryn Kelly studies how changing ocean currents affect the climate. And she does all of her research from the comfort of her office.
- Kathryn Gillis
- Professor, Earth and Ocean Sciences
Kathryn Gillis dives to rifts in the seafloor that are as deep as six kilometers to learn about the processes taking place within the ocean crust.