“It was a big surprise in Malaysia because, actually, we never experienced a magnitude 6 [earthquake] in that region,” said Navakanesh M Batmanathan. The seismic event was located away from active plate boundaries. M Batmanathan was in the perfect position to investigate what happened. He’d been fascinated with rocks ever since he was a child and, at the time, was pursuing a master’s degree in geophysics and seismology at Curtin University in Malaysia. His adviser encouraged him to focus on the Sabah earthquake, given its surprising nature.
M Batmanathan mapped faults that contributed to the quake by using a combination of satellite data and on-the-ground field measurements. These methods also allowed him the opportunity to engage with residents in Sabah. He learned not only about how the event affected people living in the area but also that there was a lack of awareness about earthquake hazards in the region.
As the recipient of a National Geographic Young Explorer grant, M Batmanathan helped to produce a short documentary that combined locals’ stories with educational information about the Sabah earthquake. He and his colleagues also taught schoolchildren in Sabah.
M Batmanathan is now a Ph.D. student at the National University of Malaysia and continues to study earthquakes—but from a slightly different perspective. He’s exploring potential connections between tectonics and sea level rise, not only in East Malaysia, where Borneo is located, but in peninsular Malaysia as well. He’s also a research assistant at the Southeast Asia Disaster Prevention Research Initiative.
M Batmanathan has done outreach on a range of science topics and attributes at least some of his success to tailoring content to different audiences, depending on their immediate concerns: He spoke about earthquakes with kids from Sabah, for instance, but focused on climate change and sea level rise with children from coastal communities in peninsular Malaysia. Determining the emphasis of community-focused outreach “depends on the region,” he said.
In the future, M Batmanathan hopes to continue educating people in Malaysia and, someday, Southeast Asia more broadly. The region is one of the most geologically active in the world—in addition to earthquakes, it is home to volcanoes, tsunamis, and landslides. “Southeast Asia is huge—we definitely need more groups to work on this,” he said.
M Batmanathan recently presented his work on the earthquake geology of Borneo at a webinar from the U-INSPIRE Alliance, an alliance of youth, young scientists, and young professionals working in science, engineering, technology, and innovation to support disaster risk reduction and resilience building, in line with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. He also regularly posts about earthquakes on Instagram (@navakanesh).
—Jack Lee, Science Writer