One of the first Black USGS geophysicists, pioneers subsurface research

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Early in his college career, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Rufus Catchings became drawn to the mysteries that lie beneath the earth’s surface — and was determined to understand them. 

Early in his college career, U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Rufus Catchings became drawn to the mysteries that lie beneath the earth’s surface — and was determined to understand them. This interest began during the first geology conference he attended, while an undergraduate student at Appalachian State University, North Carolina.

“I remember there was a huge debate that broke out about the sub-surface of the earth and whether there were faults in various locations,” said Catchings. “ I felt that it really wasn’t that difficult to solve. I thought they could’ve used geophysical techniques to answer those types of questions. Early on, I became very interested in the physics of the earth.”

Sparked by this newfound passion, Catchings, one of the first African-American research geophysicists to join the USGS in 1979,  started what was to become a much-lauded career in geophysical science. He began to advance the understanding of seismic activity with his groundbreaking sub-surface research.


His early work at USGS evaluated the structure of the Earth’s crust and upper mantle. Later, using seismic and other geophysical methods, he investigated subsurface structures, rock types, material properties, and active and potentially-active subsurface faults. This work was not only used within the geologic disciplines, but it was also used in hydrological subsurface research and research related to meteor and asteroid impacts on Earth.

“I really wanted to understand the things beneath our feet, that we couldn’t see,” he said. “I wanted to have a method to be able to see what’s there —  from water to minerals —  and to understand, in general, how the earth works.”

Early Life & Career

A naturally inquisitive kid, Catchings grew up in a racially segregated North Carolina in the late 1950’s and 1960s. He credits his family for emphasizing the importance of obtaining an advanced education and then using that education to achieve his goals, despite the challenges of racism. He and his siblings were some of the first African-American students integrated into previously segregated schools, following the 1964 Civil Rights Act and  Brown v. Board of Education legislation.

“Education was really stressed by my parents — especially math and reading,” said Catchings, one of eight siblings. “My parents made sure all of us attended college and applied our particular skills.”

Catchings completed his bachelor’s degree in Geology from Appalachian State University, master’s degree in Geophysics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ph.D. in Geophysics from Stanford University. He also did graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


After joining the USGS, Catchings worked for the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado. Later, he joined the Earthquake Science Center (and its predecessors) in Menlo Park, California as a Research Geophysicist, where he works today. From 2005 until 2008, he served as the Center Director (previously called Chief Scientist) for the Earthquake Science Center.

Catchings is known as an innovator of models that combine seismic data with other geophysical and geological data to help characterize the structure of faults.

“Rufus was [also] an early pioneer of interdisciplinary research at the USGS,” said retired USGS seismologist Lucy Jones. “He worked with both hydrologists and seismologists to understand the geologic structures in the subsurface. His seismic profiles increased our understanding of the subsurface structures that confine our aquifers and the seismogenic faults.”

His current work includes subsurface research in Beijing, China,  Koyna, India, and Vancouver, Canada. Among the accolades for his work, Catchings has been named a Fellow by the Geological Society of America and has been awarded the Department of the Interior Superior Service Award and Unit Award for Excellence of Service, which recognizes significant achievements within natural science.


Diversity in Science   

Fundamentally, Catchings believes proactive mentorship is the key avenue to guide students interested in the geoscience field. He also emphasizes the important role diversity plays in a healthy organization and values his role in encouraging prospective minority scientists to expand their exposure to scientific fields.

“They may see people who mirror themselves and think, ‘Well if he can do it, I can do it too,’” he said. “Mentorship also helps students to see the end-game and provides them with a roadmap of what they need to do to get to where they’d like to be.”

As a young researcher, Catchings was often the only African-American student in his programs. Catchings described the social and academic environment as racially segregated; leaving minority students to navigate on their own. He would often have to the take initiative to be included in study groups for assignments.

“I would hope that some of the geoscientists coming up now would not have to face quite as much as I had to,” Catchings said. “My colleagues are starting to come from backgrounds where I’m not the first person of color they’ve interacted with, and that is beneficial to a more progressive working relationship.”

Catchings is optimistic that more focused efforts in exposing underrepresented groups to the geosciences will be a part of bringing in more diversity.

USGS geophysicist Dr. Rufus Catchings, brings insights to the importance of diversity and perseverance in the earth science field.  Donyelle K. Davis, USGS(Public domain.)

Continuing to Blaze the Trail

Currently, Dr. Catchings continues his geophysical earthquake research, studying fault zones in Los Angeles, Beijing, and other places. He utilizes techniques called “PGV of Guided Waves” and “Vp/Vs Ratio Mapping” to precisely locate and identify faults.  The former method locates faults at the surface using sensors to measure energy traveling within fault zones, and the latter method identifies subsurface faults using the ratio of P- to S-wave velocities.

“Rufus’ work has proven to be a great benefit to geologists working in urban environments like Los Angeles.  Because of the urban development, we are now able to see how past earthquakes have altered the landscape, and thus hone in on the location of active faults,” said USGS geologist Kate Scharer. “Using geophysical methods, Rufus and his team are able to provide this information. It adds a ton of useful data and it’s really cool!”

Rufus Catchings in San Francisco, CA. (Golden Gate Bridge,  2010)
Rufus Catchings in San Francisco, CA. (Golden Gate Bridge,  2010)
(Credit: Rufus Catchings , USGS. Public domain.)