Everyday People: Nolan Roth

Nolan Roth explores thunderquakes on Earth and the infinite possibilities of planets.

Nolan Roth examines a glowing model of a planetary body, photo by Cardoni

Stars Align

After earning physics and computer science degrees from High Point University in 2020, Nolan Roth wasn’t “fully satisfied” with his education in raw physics—he wanted to apply it to something. When he researched graduate programs, he knew he wanted to study planetary science and was intrigued by Penn State’s astrobiology dual-title degree.

“Its name is too short for what it is,” says Roth. “It should be called astro-geo-bio-chemo-seismology.” The program’s comprehensive nature allows Roth to do exactly what he wants: examine the interactions between a planet’s atmosphere and the Earth itself (or the planet beneath that atmosphere) throughout the solar system.


Last year, Roth was awarded a NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant to boost his planetary research. He’s looking for subsurface water on Mars—specifically in areas where lakes and glaciers haven’t been discovered—by applying electromagnetic surveying to standard seismic techniques. This method could eventually be used on other planets and moons.

Thunderquakes in the Forecast

Roth is working in the lab of his adviser, assistant geophysics professor Tieyuan Zhu. Together, they study thunderquakes, or ground vibrations when lightning strikes. This is a chance to see into the subsurface and learn, for example, the depth of dirt, or if sinkholes exist. Which is to say that, yes, Roth gets pretty excited when there’s inclement weather in the forecast. “Thunderstorms mean more data,” Roth says, “and that’s good for us.”

His Orbit

During his first NASA experience, Roth spent the summer of 2019 as a space exploration intern at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Beaver Stadium Experiment

Roth, who expects to complete the five-year Ph.D. program in 2025, would love to measure “fanquakes” at a football game. He’d set sensors and seismometers to measure how the stadium responds to touchdowns, the Blue Band, and—probably—“Zombie Nation.”

Nolan's Stats

Yutan, Nebraska

University Park

2022 NASA Space Grant recipient

He writes speculative fiction and creates computer simulations to predict realistic climates for his stories.

Brad Foley’s astrobiology seminar