Collecting data on 300 earthquakes in the UK each year
While most of us view earthquakes with a mix of fascination and fear, there's a hard commercial edge to the work OU graduate Alice Walker oversees as Head of the Earthquake Information Service for the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

In the 20 years or so that BGS has been collecting meaningful data about the 200 to 300 earthquakes in the UK each year, it's discovered a gap between the `guestimates' building standards are based on, and the reality of UK seismic activity, says Alice.

"What we are measuring is completely different from what the theorists are saying. In other words people are spending lots and lots of money to withstand something which will never happen."

Since the Internet shrank the globe, Alice's team find themselves more often called on to comment on earthquakes around the globe than to announce them - although they've a hotline to the International Red Cross so that disaster relief can begin immediately in the case of any earthquake likely to have resulted in casualties.

Closer to home the service's chief clients include industries such as oil and nuclear power who need rapid and accurate information about the source of any unexpected movement - and the media and members of the public looking for expert comment on anything from whether its safe to holiday in Mexico to why people were shaken awake at 2am in Hereford that morning. A new international contract will involve monitoring for nuclear test explosions around the globe, which can appear similar to earthquakes.

Quarry blasts, mining collapses - even pop concerts - are also picked up by the 141 UK seismic stations providing a continuous flow of data for Alice's team to analyse.

After 18 years recording the earth move, Alice is as fascinated by her work as when she joined BGS straight from school. Long before the OU announced it was attracting more younger students, 18-year-old Alice decided to grab her chance at this job and catch up academically through open learning.

She took eight years to get a degree comprising mostly maths and geology - an experience which helps now in supporting colleagues studying with the OU - and was an OU science tutor for three years until management responsibilities left too little spare time in her calendar.

The sum total of all this work, says Alice, is to make the world a safer place for people to live, whether that involves training a new generation of seismologists in Africa or advising people in quake-susceptible countries like Iran that the heavy roofs they prefer to keep the heat out could cause more deaths in an earthquake.

"I see our job as collecting information in order to reduce the impact of earthquakes wherever they occur," she says.

Jane Matthews

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