Science Faculty Spotlight: Cecilia McHugh

January 4, 2022

Dr. Cecilia McHugh is a Distinguished Professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Queens College, City University of New York, a member of the Graduate Center’s Doctoral Faculty in Earth and Environmental Sciences,  and an Adjunct Senior Researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Marine Geology and Geophysics. She obtained her Ph.D. at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Marine Geology and Geophysics.  Her research focuses on marine geology and sedimentation processes to understand earthquake and tsunamis, sea-level changes, climate, and the impact of anthropogenic activities in the local rivers and estuaries such as the Hudson and Long Island Sound. Professor McHugh has also studied the effects of extra-terrestrial impact events, such as the one that happened 35 million years ago in what is today Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.

Cecilia McHugh stands on a stone pier in front of a Japanese military ship

McHugh is driven by the discovery of the unknown, which has led her to become an expert in the geophysics of the ocean floor. Very little is known about the ocean floors in proportion to their huge coverage of the Earth 70%. The beauty of studying sediments is that in the submarine environment they tend to be deposited and not disturbed as on land, so the history of events in preserved back in time for millions of years. Indeed there are discoveries in every expedition in which she’s participated:  36 sea-going expeditions including five Ocean Drilling Expeditions that took place on the New Jersey Continental Margin, Canterbury Basin, offshore New Zealand, the western margin of Australia, and the Japan Trench.

Cecelia McHugh and research group pictured in Haiti

Professor McHugh is one of the founders of the emerging field of submarine paleoseismology that studies earthquakes and tsunamis under the sea. This work began in Turkey in 1999 after catastrophic earthquakes caused thousands of casualties and much destruction. Professor McHugh has led and will lead expeditions to study the M7.0 2010 and M7.2 2021 Haiti earthquakes as part of RAPID Responses, and she is studying the disastrous M 9.0, 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami.  These studies are conducted by using sound emitted from the ship, which travels through the water column, penetrates beneath the seafloor, and then return to the ship.  Through computer processing, acoustic images are produced of the sea floor and sub-bottom. These images guide the core sediment sampling strategy which is done with long tubes that recover up to 40 m long layers of sediments. When there is an earthquake, the shaking and motion of an earthquake disrupts the sediment. Layers that show sediment deformation are identified, and dated with radioisotopes allowing to reconstruct the history or earthquakes for a region. This provides an understanding of how often and where these earthquakes have occurred and can potentially occur in the future.

Cecelia McHugh and research group pictured on the deck of a ship, shot from above

By studying the this sedimentation record, we can also learn what climate and sea-level were in the past and help us understand their impact in the future.

Dr. McHugh teaches classes to undergraduate non-majors in oceanography, geoscience majors in the oceans and atmosphere and graduate students about coastal and estuarine geology. In her classes, PhD and Masters students learn about coastal geology, morphology, and how coastal settings are modified by present and future anthropogenically driven challenges such as ocean warming, acidification, sea level rise and pollution.

Cecelia McHugh and research team stand together on a beach with research gear

Professor McHugh enjoys working with her graduate and undergraduate students.  Outside of the classroom, they participate in sea-going expeditions where they learn about science and how to conduct marine research.  Most importantly students learn that if they set a goal and work for it, they can improve their lives through their efforts in science.  Dr. McHugh sets an excellent example of how students can achieve their goals.  She came to the US after her high-school with little knowledge of English but learned that if you set a goal and work for it, there are many opportunities.  As such, she was able to form a family, go to a community college, attend night school for her B.S., complete her Ph.D., and soon after, be hired as a professor at Queens College, CUNY. So indeed students’ goals can be achieved! Dr. McHugh would like to inspire others to have big ideas and big dreams and pursue them, because they can come true.