Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—Patricia McCrory

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This is the thrid in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientist Emeriti. Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS.

Pat McCrory is a multitalented scientist who is continuing her investigations into the nature of the Cascadia subduction zone that lies both offshore and beneath 3 U.S. states, Washington, Oregon, and the northern part of California as well as British Columbia. This subduction zone just 300 years ago unleashed a magnitude 9 (giant) earthquake and corresponding large tsunami, and is expected to repeat this behavior in the future.

Pat uses her expertise in geology, geochemistry, and geophysics to provide a framework for the evolution of tectonic plate activity in western North America, and how it relates to our modern day earthquake hazard. She is also always ready to pitch in on side projects that benefit our science center!

Stephen Hickman  
Earthquake Science Center Director 

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Patricia McCrory aboard the USGS Ship R/V S.P. Lee

Patricia McCrory aboard the USGS Ship R/V S.P. Lee leaving Adak, Alaska headed to Hawai'i along the Hawaiian—Emperor seamount chain. Credit: Dave Foster, USGS. Public domain.

What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place? 

My father loved nature and we visited several national parks on vacation when I was growing up. He made sure we attended all the campfire nature talks. When I decided to major in Earth Sciences as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), my father said, “Why don’t you get a summer job at the USGS?” So I did. I spent two summers working as a field assistant in the Wasatch Mountains, Utah. The first year, I mostly accompanied Martin Sorenson in the field as he mapped the Wasatch’s complex structural geology. The second year, Max Crittenden, who was also a neighbor, taught me how to drive a manual transmission bouncing through a plowed field, gave me a Mighty Mite, a surplus military jeep, and sent me off to map Quaternary deposits in a mountain valley. I remember being buzzed by military pilots practicing in the canyons…

I became a permanent employee within the Earthquake Program at the USGS about the time my daughter was born. She’s often accompanied me in the field both in coastal Washington and coastal California. It’s only fair to mention that my husband has served as my field assistant for almost all my excursions. One memorable day, we were working on a beach within the Vandenberg Air Force Base in a low hanging fog, when the ground shook from a huge sonic boom. We found out later it was the Atlantis space shuttle breaking the sound barrier on its way to the Edwards Air Force Base.

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emeritus? 

I worked for the USGS for 40 years before shifting to an emeritus role on 01 October 2018. Since then I have split my time between traveling the world and completing a few research projects. 

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emeritus? 

I was a Senior Research Geologist in the Earthquake Science Center, where I am now a Scientist Emeritus.

Describe a highlight of your career. 

Women professionals in the Earth Sciences were rare when I was in school, so it was both challenging and rewarding to experience that pioneering time. I remember attending a seminar at Stanford hosted by Allan Cox, thinking to myself as I looked around the table, that if I stayed in the Earth Sciences, this would be my life: a roomful of big men and me. Nowadays, women make up about 30–40% of the professionals in my science center. 

What led you to decide to become an Emeritus? 

I wanted to reduce the amount of time spent on paperwork so I could better focus on completing a few scientific projects.

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future? 

The main project I’m focused on now is a noble gas study in the forearc region of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. I’ve been sampling mineral springs and deep wells since 2012 to investigate deep subsurface processes controlling the seismic behavior of the Cascadia subduction fault. For example, detecting helium isotopes in water and gas samples can tell us whether fluids are coming from the mantle, which in turn gives us clues about metamorphic changes to the down-going oceanic plate. I also correlate these results with tectonic tremor occurrence. We have collected another 16 samples since 2016, and I am currently writing up the results of my past two sampling seasons along with the isotopic laboratory analyses. I hope to collect one more sample from a gas well near Forks, Washington, but this is currently on hold, owing to restrictions on travel and pending the petroleum company's schedule.  

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emeritus? 

I am now able to focus on finishing a series of research projects. In addition to the noble gas project, I plan a modest update of a Juan de Fuca slab model published in 2012 based on recently collected OBS data from the NSF Cascadia Initiative and updated offshore gravity data. I also have a pending publication of a fault-block model for the Pacific Northwest in collaboration with Doug Wilson, a colleague at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

USGS researchers working in the McArthur lab

USGS scientists at work in the McArthur lab. From left to right Patricia McCrory (Chief Scientist), Bill Danforth (USGS side-scan specialist), and Tommy O’Brien (data acquisition specialist). Credit: Kaye Kinoshita, Formerly USGS. Public domain.

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emeritus? 

I keep in contact with the naturalist for the Quinault Tribe in Washington. I pass along articles that I think are of interest to the Quinault people and track their plans to mitigate natural hazards, in particular tsunami hazards and intensified storm damage. They have excellent tribal leadership and are quite advanced in addressing natural hazards and conserving natural resources. 

What are/were the most important decisions you made as a research scientist for your organization? 

I would say the Juan de Fuca slab model is the product that has found the widest use within and outside the USGS. When mapping crustal faults in the coastal Washington, I couldn’t find an adequate seismicity data set to determine which faults might have earthquakes associated with them. I worked with our GIS specialists, Steve Walter and Luke Blair, to map the underlying Juan de Fuca slab for the entire Cascadia subduction zone. We then used this surface to separate crustal earthquakes from slab ones. The initial model was refined in 2012, and I’ve been gratified to see the slab model employed by earth scientists in a diverse suite of studies investigating various aspects of earthquake processes, volcanic arc processes, seismogenic zone locking, geodetic models, stress and strain models, and more.  

Have you had any great career mentors, and if so, what made them great?

I have been lucky to have had several. First of all, Max Crittenden, who offered me a summer field assistantship even though I only had 3 Earth Sciences courses under my belt. He would often mutter FRKN (funny rock don’t know) when I followed behind him in the field. Which impressed me as his way to keep an open mind. Ken Lajoie loved to teach young students about Quaternary processes. Jerry Weber, who was a graduate student at UCSC when I was an undergraduate, took me into the field as an assistant mapping the Año Nuevo fault zone and the Hosgri fault zone. Dave McCulloch encouraged my early research in marine geophysics, including inviting me to participate in a research cruise my first year of graduate school at Stanford University. Jack Boatwright took me under his wing when I was starting my professional career in the earthquake group. He pushed me to become a better writer and advised me on how to navigate the ups and downs of research underpinnings.

USGS researchers aboard the NOAA Ship R/V McArthur

NOAA Ship R/V McArthur, where USGS Scientist Patricia McCrory sailed as Chief Scientist during the 'night shift' to collect marine geophysical data. Credit: Tommy O'Brien, USGS. Public domain.

What’s the biggest risk you have ever taken? 

I was asked to serve as the scientist onboard a Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) Sea Cliff dive off the Columbia River. The main goal of the NURP research cruise was to obtain sediment samples along fault scarps to constrain the age of faulting in the accretionary prism. I’m a bit claustrophobic, so I had to talk myself into going on the dive, knowing it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. The two Navy officers who piloted the submersible normally served as nuclear engineers on submarines. The Sea Cliff isn’t tethered, thus is able to descend quite deep. We went down one mile, very slowly because of the pressure, and I was amazed to see animals swimming around in that pressure. We collected a sample on a subtle fault scarp that fortunately contained microfossils, which are key for constraining the age of fault slip. The pilots left the lights on for me on our ascent, and when we reached the photic zone, we were surrounded by thousands of jelly fish. Another amazing sight. There were rough seas when we surfaced, and 2 or 3 Navy crew came out in an inflatable boat (RHIB) to attach the tether. I think it was two in the morning, 12-ft seas, them risking their safety and laughing about it later.  Great group of guys. 

How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? 

Curiosity is the foundation of science. I encourage people to ask questions. I often try to link up scientists in overlapping fields to broaden their perspective and foster fresh ways of tackling research problems.

What is your best advice for early and mid-career scientists? 

Time is precious. Focus on research topics you think are important. If you are going to push the boundaries, trust your intuition, but also talk to experts because they can help focus your direction and weed out errors. Collaborate with people who are supportive yet also astute thinkers. Hone your skills writing research papers, grant proposals, and presenting research results. There are a lot of tools and support options available for young scientists nowadays, including seminars on writing grant proposals or crafting provocative talks, short courses, workshops, and scientific societies that promote ways to connect with mentors. Even daycare at professional meetings 

How are you spending your time during the pandemic?

I’m keeping track of what my kids are doing. My daughter has a new baby. She is a UCSF primary care physician. One of my sons works in an immunology laboratory at Stanford, although he’s currently teleworking as the laboratory is closed during this phase of the pandemic. My other son is a PhD student at UCSC, working on stream restoration for a section of the Sacramento River. I have been canceling travel plans too. I was supposed to be flying back from Sweden today! And my husband and I just postponed a trip to Kenya and Tanzania to next July.

Patricia McCrory inspects a trench in Washington State

Picture taken by USGS Scientist Emeritus Patricia McCrory's son (Christian Constantz) en route to the SeaTac Airport (hence the dress) after working on Quinault tribal land. The trench was cut by Brian Sherrod (USGS Seattle earthquake group), and Patricia had been asked to stop by & take a look. Credit: Christian Constantz