The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is celebrating the success of three distinguished researchers who are recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This award is the highest recognition granted by the United States government to scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers.
The 2010 USGS recipients are: Jeanne Hardebeck, research geophysicist, for her assessment of the nature and strength of earthquake-generating forces and of earthquake prediction tools; Nicolas Luco, research structural engineer, who studies seismic risk and structural responses to ground motion; and Pamela Nagler, research physical scientist, for her studies of plant water use and water preservation in America's arid western states.
Each year, ten federal departments and agencies join together to nominate outstanding scientists and engineers whose discoveries and advancements expand the horizons of science and technology, contribute to their agencies’ missions, and benefit America’s economy and the health and safety of her people.
"Science and technology have long been at the core of America's economic strength and global leadership," President Obama said, in a White House press release from Nov. 5, 2010. "I am confident that these individuals, who have shown such tremendous promise so early in their careers, will go on to make breakthroughs and discoveries that will continue to move our nation forward in the years ahead."
Nominee selections are based on two criteria: innovation that advances scientific and engineering frontiers and scientific leadership demonstrated through community service, outreach and public education.
"The fact that these talented young researchers are being recognized for the highly prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards reminds us that there is ample opportunity for creativity, innovation, and excellence for those who perform science in service to society, such as through reducing our vulnerability to natural hazards and helping to better manage our essential ecosystems," said Director of the USGS, Dr. Marcia McNutt.
Meet the Awardees
Dr. Jeanne Hardebeck: “My Lab is in the Faults of Earthquake Zones”
Menlo Park, CA
Hardebeck’s outstanding scientific contributions are many, including research on the strength of faults and the orientation of stress along the San Andreas fault system. Her research has led to the discovery of many first-order features that interest and impact society, causing the scientific community to rethink its understanding about the forces that cause earthquakes.
Hardebeck’s contributions address critical issues in seismotectonics that have previously been poorly understood due to a lack of information and poor quality data. Hardebeck explains, “I study data from thousands of small shaking events deep within the earth to determine how the forces acting on faults change in time and space.”
One fundamental problem she addresses is the strength of the faults that cause large earthquakes. She explains that the key is to go to areas where 7.0 earthquakes and greater have occurred and examine how events can change the direction and maximum forces acting on the fault. “And things can change quite a bit,” she said modestly. “If the large earthquake is changing the stress on the fault, and we can measure the stress that was released from that earthquake, we can get an idea of what the stress on the fault was before the event.”
“Jeanne has made tremendous contributions to our mission of reducing earthquake risk in the United States by improving our understanding of the nature and behavior of faults,” said Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake & Geologic Hazards, David Applegate. “She has created new approaches and methods for studying small earthquakes and employed them to improve our understanding of the faults that threaten cities and facilities throughout California.”
“Jeanne's studies are careful and detailed, yet profound. Jeanne searches for, and then solves significant research problems in seismotectonics and the assessment of earthquake hazards. Her research in seismology also includes important evaluations of earthquake prediction tools,” said Hardebeck’s supervisor, Ruth Harris. Coworker Andrew Michael reports, “I have never heard Jeanne utter a single biased phrase-her comments are guided by the data.” Michael continues, “Jeanne’s ‘I don’t need to be right’ attitude has allowed her to be right so many times and has enabled her to make key contributions to a series of controversies about how earthquakes work.”
Hardebeck began her studies with a B.A. in Computer Science at Cornell University, followed by a Ph.D. at Cal Tech where she examined spatial and temporal patterns of stresses in southern California; such a large-scale systematic study had never before been conducted.
Hardebeck chuckles when describing some of her challenges, “It’s certainly not the case that I can take what I study into a lab. Because we can’t directly observe faults deep below the Earth’s surface, we have to develop alternative methods to infer data indirectly from shaking events.”
In addition to the support of her colleagues, Hardebeck attributes her success to USGS’s expansive network of seismic instrumentation in the field. “These networks are critical to my research and this investment has really paid off.”
As Hardebeck would see it, what she has accomplished thus far, is just a small part of the research she plans to continue in the future. “We understand so little about this field and there is so much left unknown.” Hardebeck will continue to pursue “first order questions” like “how large are the forces acting on faults?”
As Harris observes, “Hardebeck’s work greatly enhances our USGS mission of service to science and society.”
Dr. Nicolas Luco: “Adoption of new building code makes the next generation of buildings more resistant to earthquake shaking.”
Luco works to minimize earthquake losses by researching structural responses to ground motion in high risk areas. A new “risk-targeted” ground motion mapping procedure he championed correlates building design standards directly to probabilistic building damage during shaking events, and has become a critical element in earthquake-resistant design criteria.
Through Luco’s professional leadership, this new procedure has been adopted by the Building Seismic Safety Council and the American Society of Civil Engineers for inclusion in future editions of the International Building Code, the primary model building code for the United States.
"Nico's research is making an important contribution to reducing losses from earthquakes. His innovative approaches are already influencing the building codes that will govern future construction in earthquake-prone areas across the nation," said Applegate.
Building codes have previously been based solely on the description of earthquake hazards and have not explicitly included an assessment of possible building collapse during shaking events. Luco’s research has produced a fundamental change in the approach to earthquake-resistant design and construction.
“Luco has advocated forcefully and successfully for using the best available science and engineering information to improve building design codes,” said Mark Petersen, Luco’s supervisor. “His research on risk-targeted ground motion mapping has contributed to improving the country's building codes significantly.”
Achieving such nationwide change was not an easy task. “Explaining my research in ways that resonates with others is one of the greatest challenges in my work,” said Luco. But communicating his work to the public is a critical component of what Luco aims to achieve in his research. “There is still much that is unknown about earthquakes and their effects on buildings and other man-made structures. I work to translate into practice what we do know and improve our collective knowledge,” said Luco.
Luco has emerged as a leader in the structural engineering community not only for his technical research contributions but also for his exceptional creativity and leadership in designing, advocating, and achieving innovative improvements in model building codes influencing billions of dollars of construction each year.
“I appreciate working at the USGS because it gives me the opportunity to research topics ranging from those that improve earthquake engineering practice today to those that may not have impacts until years down the road,” said Luco. His research will impact construction in earthquake-prone areas across the nation, from Los Angeles, California, to Boston, Massachusetts, and from Anchorage, Alaska, to Charleston, South Carolina.
Luco’s interest in structural and earthquake engineering was first sparked by a science project he conducted with his father (Prof. J. Enrique Luco, University of California at San Diego) in junior high school. Luco completed his doctoral work at Stanford studying Civil & Environmental Engineering with the late Professor Allin Cornell, an internationally recognized engineer and the founder of probabilistic seismic hazard analysis in the United States. It is Cornell to whom Luco attributes his keen interest in probability and statistics, which spawned a master’s degree in Statistics completed during his doctoral work.
“Luco’s work will lead to more rational building designs in high hazard areas and will ultimately save lives during earthquake shaking,” said Petersen.
Dr. Pamela Nagler: “Mythbusting: Scientific Data Reveals the Truth about Saltcedar”
Nagler is recognized for her work comparing the evapotranspiration (ET) rates of saltcedar and native plants along the Lower Colorado River. Quantifying water used by plants is critical in the arid Southwest where farmers and cities compete for every drop of water. Nagler and her team created an innovative method for estimating plant water use along western rivers by combining satellite imagery with data from ‘flux towers’ which measure moisture passing from plant leaves into the atmosphere.
Saltcedar has long been blamed for its high water consumption, displacement of native plants, and destruction of wildlife habitats. For the past 25 years, the public has supported aggressive control and eradication of this invasive shrub.
Her breakthrough science proved that the saltcedar is not the water guzzler originally thought. “We found that riparian vegetation on the Lower Colorado River uses 450,000 acre-ft per year less water than has been assumed by resource managers in the past. This is less than one meter a year–less water than most native trees use or even your back lawn would require,” said Nagler. Already, the economic costs of eradicating this species are being re-examined.
Nagler’s research on saltcedar exemplifies the practical applications she strives for through her research: “I’m all about getting the numbers and providing the data, which often times fills the missing link to help wildlife and water managers make those key decisions,” said Nagler. “For me, science is about studying the interconnection between humans and the earth. It doesn’t make sense to study the earth by itself without considering its ties to people,” said Nagler.
Nagler’s saltcedar findings have significant ecological and economic implications. “Her results helped change the way we think about saltcedar on western U.S. rivers,” said Ed Glenn, senior research scientist in the Environmental Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona. Nagler’s data is reversing the common perception of saltcedar as detrimental, to a beneficial low-water user that will grow in salty soils and support wildlife.
Nagler persevered over several summers along the Colorado River, measuring saltcedar and crop water use which Glenn describes as a "mission impossible. She gets her crews out of their motel rooms and into the saltcedar thickets by 5:00 a.m. They spend 12 hour days squatting under the bushes in up to 120 degree heat, setting up intricate sets of wires and electronics to measure the amount of water passing through individual plant stems - hundreds of them,” said Glenn. “But, Pam got the job done at a critical time when calls were issued to spend several hundred million dollars on saltcedar clearance programs.”
The methods Nagler developed for ET estimation from ground and remote sensing data have been widely applied by other U.S. and foreign scientists to arid and semi-arid ecosystems at the local, regional, and continental scales of measurement.
“I owe my great enthusiasm and love of science to my parents,” said Nagler, and her positive outlook has been nourished by strong mentor relationships throughout different academic and personal phases in her life.
Nagler began her studies with a B.A. in Geography from the University of Florida, and later an M.S. in Geography, Remote Sensing Science, from the University of Maryland. Nagler went on to conduct her Ph.D and post doctoral work at the University of Arizona.
Nagler’s commitment to using science to inform policy decisions is why she invests so much time in building connections, outreach activities, and teaching others. Currently, Nagler balances her research and commitment to the Sonoran Desert Research Station with adjunct faculty positions in the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona.
“Nagler’s findings have provided relevant and meaningful answers to land management questions throughout the Southwest,” said Kate Kitchell, center director of the Southwest Biology Science Center. “Her research offers hope that both ecological and human water needs can be accommodated by the river systems in the arid Southwest.”