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Montana Tech student in Butte earns Goldwater scholarship for Earthquake research

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Posted at 5:17 PM, Apr 16, 2021

BUTTE - Montana Tech junior Frankie Johnston first became interested in studying earthquakes four years ago when a 5.8-magnitude one woke her up in the middle of the night. It was a life-changing event.

“It rattled my whole bed and I woke up in the middle of the night gripping my bed going ‘what’s going on?’ and I never realized how unpredictable our lives could be until that moment. You never know when somethings just going to happen,” said Johnston.

Johnston is now doing research on how earthquakes can cause boulders and rock slides along highways and populated areas by use of a shake table, in which she can simulate earthquakes and study results.

“When an earthquake occurs you want to know if the block’s going to topple or if it’s going to fail, because you want to know, hey, is this guy’s house in the way? Or is this rock going to fall on a highway,” said Johnston.

Her research has earned the Highwood, Montana, native, the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship.

“She’s very independent, a super talented researcher, and really driven to contribute to the up-and-coming field of earthquake engineering and I think the sky’s the limit for where Frankie’s going to go for her research career,” said Geological Engineering Professor Mary McLaughlin.

On the shake table, blocks here represent boulders along a highway. Johnston demonstrated a simulated earthquake and the table will show how the boulders fall - this will help engineers design safer infrastructure.

“You want to know if the blocks are going to slide or fail to know if your escape routes from the city are going to be OK and getting cargo in and out of the city is super important too,” said Johnston.

Johnston said Montana Tech in Butte is a great place to do the research. She plans to get her Ph.D. in geophysics and develop early-warning earthquake systems.

Montana Tech student in Butte earns Goldwater scholarship for Earthquake research