Duke Fulbright Alum Takes Earthquake Education and Warning to Kazakhstan

6/27/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Rachael Lau (Duke CEE BSE ’20, MEng ’22, PhD ’24) secured a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund to build on her earthquake work done in Nepal

rachael lau
Duke Fulbright Alum Takes Earthquake Education and Warning to Kazakhstan

When people hear about catastrophic natural disasters in faraway countries, their response is fairly predictable. Words will be exchanged about how sad and terrible it must be for those affected. Prayers and donations might be offered in the hopes of helping even a little bit. Some enterprising souls might even join a coordinated relief effort to send supplies.

Rachael Lau, a recent graduate of Duke Engineering with a trifecta of degrees in civil and environmental engineering (CEE B.S., M.Eng., and Ph.D.), has never followed the predictable pattern.

Rachael Lau and two colleagues have won a $10,000 grant to implement earthquake safety measures and educational campaigns in Kazakhstan.

For the past six years, Lau has followed her passion for the disaster process, including prevention, modeling, mitigation, forecasting and response. Working with CEE Professor and Chair Henri Gavin, she co-founded a student research group in 2019 called the Kathmandu Geo Lab inspired by the senior thesis work of fellow Duke graduate Pratiksha Sharma that is working to develop early earthquake warning systems in Nepal. After traveling to Nepal as a National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholar, she has been the sole project manager of these collaborative efforts with the local government to save lives through early warnings and earthquake educational campaigns. Her work led to her earning a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to focus on landslides and earthquakes in Nepal from 2022-2023.

Now, her efforts are continuing to bear fruit, as the U.S. Department of State’s Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund has awarded Lau and two Fulbright alumni, Ksenia Polyarskaya and Evan Allen, a $10,000 grant to implement earthquake safety measures in southern Kazakhstan. This project will implement free-of-charge, accessible, multilingual, practical earthquake drills and prevention curricula in local schools, focusing on vulnerable populations with the goal of capacity building in local schools, universities and social welfare organizations. The group will also help put together free workshops that demonstrate drills and activities that local teachers can use to alleviate stress and create a sense of agency in the face of earthquake risk.

“I am passionate about disaster education because disasters have an immense capacity to strip people of their dignity, and proper disaster education allows people to preserve or reclaim that humanity,” Lau said.

Earlier this year, the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) invited U.S. citizen alumni of all U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs to apply for small grants as part of the funding opportunity. The competition received more applications than all previous iterations and will fund 43 projects across 24 countries and territories, including four projects in the United States.

Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke

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