Rock mechanics expert Pyrak-Nolte wins 2023 Dean’s Award for Achievement

By Tom Dinki

Published June 7, 2023

Laura Pyrak-Nolte has always been passionate about rocks. 

Laura Pyrak-Nolte.

Laura Pyrak-Nolte

“Every journey has its ups and downs. It is like hiking mountain trails: You know you have to keep climbing and maybe you can see that the top of the mountain is close, but for some reason the path goes down or plateaus. But if you keep hiking, if you persevere, eventually you reach the top. ”
Laura Pyrak-Nolte, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Purdue University

A 1981 graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Purdue University, Pyrak-Nolte studies how rocks behave beneath the Earth’s surface in order to provide insight into natural gas production, fresh water availability and nuclear waste disposal.

But as a child collecting rocks, she wasn’t concerned about how they behave or impact the energy economy. She simply found them pretty. 

“Sometimes we don’t recognize our passions, or think that passions must be deep,” Pyrak-Nolte said in a video message played at one of SEAS’ graduate commencement ceremonies held May 20.

Pyrak-Nolte’s advice to the class of 2023 to find their own passion, whatever it may be, came after she was named the recipient of SEAS’ 2023 Dean’s Award for Achievement.

The award is the highest honor presented by the school and is awarded annually to someone who has made a substantial contribution to the practice of engineering or applied sciences or has had an exceptional professional career. Recipients are invited to be honored speakers at commencement.

“Dr. Pyrak-Nolte is an internationally recognized scholar for her work on the mechanisms that underpin seismic processes in complex rock fractures,” said Kemper Lewis, dean of SEAS. “We are honored to recognize Laura as an alumna of great distinction, whose career achievements merit our highest regard.”

Pyrak-Nolte looks to understand the evolution of fractures, how seismic waves interact with them and how their geometry impacts the flow of fluids. 

Her research has included mapping the flow of fluid through fractures via “chattering dust.” As these chemically reactive grains of sucrose travel through fractures in buried rock and dissolve, the pockets of pressurized carbon dioxide gas inside them burst and emit acoustic signals. These signals can provide information about a rock’s internal fracture geometry and any potential bottlenecks.

She also uses 3D printing to create synthetic rock samples and has shown that studying their fractures can help predict the behavior of rocks in the real world.

Pyrak-Nolte is a past president of the American Rock Mechanics Association and the International Society for Porous Media and is the vice president of North America for the International Society for Rock Mechanics and Rock Engineering. She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2021 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2022.

But when graduating from UB with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science in 1981, Pyrak-Nolte said she saw nothing but a blank slate when envisioning her future. 

“I didn’t see a path. I didn’t think about a path,” she told SEAS graduates in her video message. “I just always looked for the next adventure.” 

Her adventures included receiving her master’s degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Then came what she called a “downslope” in which she struggled to find a job.  

She had a short-term appointment as a visiting assistant professor at Purdue, where her husband, David Nolte, also taught. In 1992, she took an assistant professor position 100 miles away at the University of Notre Dame.

It would take five years for her to get hired back at Purdue as an associate professor and once again be closer to her husband, who is now Purdue’s Edward M. Purcell Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy.

“Was this a smooth path? Of course not. Every journey has its ups and downs,” Pyrak-Nolte said. “It is like hiking mountain trails: You know you have to keep climbing and maybe you can see that the top of the mountain is close, but for some reason the path goes down or plateaus. But if you keep hiking, if you persevere, eventually you reach the top.

“Some people may tell you that at this point you should envision where you want to be and just go for it,” she added. “But I am telling you to not worry if you don’t know where you want to be.”

Pyrak-Nolte also advised new graduates to be generous with their time. She said that she did not succeed by working alone, but instead had generous mentors, colleagues and students who contributed to her success. 

“In life it is important to be generous in mind, heart and spirit — willingness to help others,” she said. “Because it is the human connections that often define the success of life."