USGS Scientists Receive Presidential Awards for Research on Earthquakes, Fish Disease, and Paleoclimate

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The U.S. Geological Survey 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.

RESTON, Va. — The U.S. Geological Survey 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.

Last week, President Obama welcomed USGS researchers and more than 100 other leading scientists and engineers from around the country and the world to thank them for their work on some of the most challenging and complex issues in science and technology.

The new PECASE recipients from USGS are

  • Richard Briggs:  “For his achievements in deciphering and understanding the earthquake prehistories of several of Earth's most hazardous faults, for helping to apply these results to regional earthquake-hazard assessments, and for intellectual and scientific leadership in earthquake-hazards research in the western U.S. and diverse regions of the globe.”
  • Jeff Pigati: “For significant contributions toward understanding the paleoclimatic significance of desert wetlands, for developing new methods and materials for radiocarbon dating, and for leadership in the investigations of the Snowmastodon fossil site in the Rocky Mountains.”
  • Maureen Purcell: “For research on the molecular basis of the innate immune response of fish to pathogens or vaccines and the role of genetics and the environment in this process.”

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 the nation’s people.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

Meet the USGS Awardees 

Dr. Richard W. Briggs

Presidential citation: “For his achievements in deciphering and understanding the earthquake prehistories of several of Earth's most hazardous faults, for helping to apply these results to regional earthquake-hazard assessments, and for intellectual and scientific leadership in earthquake-hazards research in the western U.S. and diverse regions of the globe.”

Richard Briggs
Richard Briggs, PECASE Awardee

Richard Briggs has significantly improved the understanding of earthquake and tsunami hazards throughout the world, demonstrating extraordinary creativity and excellence in his career. He has introduced the use of coral heads—which are highly sensitive to sea level change—as a tool to map patterns of rapid sea floor uplift and subsidence associated with great earthquakes. This innovation has led to a better understanding of the behavior of subduction plate boundaries over multiple earthquake cycles and an improved assessment of the hazards associated with these greatest faults.

Briggs has also utilized satellite imagery as a complement to seismological data to decipher earthquake ruptures and assess future hazards. In this way, Briggs and colleagues were able to show that the M 7.0 Haiti earthquake rupture was very complex, involving slip on multiple faults including a previously unidentified blind thrust fault.  His work helped inform USAID and USGS response efforts and also identified that significant hazard remains in the Port-au-Prince region, where a large amount of accumulated strain has not yet been released.

“Rich is an incredibly creative and insightful scientist who is continually pushing the field in new and exciting directions,” said Jill McCarthy, director of the Geologic Hazards Science Center in Golden, Colo. “He has advanced our understanding of earthquake prehistories in a number of different tectonic settings, and his work has led to improved earthquake-hazard assessments for the nation.”

His scientific contributions are as valuable as they are varied, including helping the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission evaluate the earthquake hazard component of permit applications, serving as a coordinator for USGS earthquake hazards research in the InterMountain West, leading new research investigations in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and in the Basin and Range of the Western U.S., and giving back as a mentor to Mendenhall postdoctoral fellows.

Briggs has a B.S. in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University, as well as a Ph.D. in Geology through the Center for Neotectonic Studies from the University of Nevada, Reno. He was also a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Tectonics Observatory at the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Jeff Pigati

Presidential citation: “For significant contributions toward understanding the paleoclimatic significance of desert wetlands, for developing new methods and materials for radiocarbon dating, and for leadership in the investigations of the Snowmastodon fossil site in the Rocky Mountains.”

Jeff Pigati
 Jeff Pigati, PECASE Awardee 

USGS scientist Jeff Pigati is receiving a PECASE Award in recognition of his significant contributions to geoscience through three separate areas of research:  (1) understanding the paleoclimatic significance of desert wetlands; (2) developing new methods and materials for radiocarbon dating; and (3) taking a leadership role in the investigations of the Snowmastodon fossil site in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. 

Pigati’s paleoclimatic desert wetland work shows that certain deposits from wetlands located in the deserts of the southwestern United States contain rich records of sediments and fossils that allow reconstruction of past groundwater conditions, a major indicator of climate.  Within the realm of geochronology, Jeff has made major contributions to both the laboratory methodology of radiocarbon dating and evaluation of materials suitable for dating.

"Jeff’s geologic talents reside not only in being a keen observer in the field, but also having a deep understanding of laboratory theory and techniques,” said USGS scientist Dr. Eugene Schweig, Pigati’s supervisor.

His leadership abilities and skill at outreach, combined with his interdisciplinary approach to studying the geosciences, have been demonstrated in the highly publicized Snowmastodon project and site outside Aspen, Colo.  Pigati has a Ph.D. in Geosciences from the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Dr. Maureen K. Purcell

Presidential citation: “For research on the molecular basis of the innate immune response of fish to pathogens or vaccines and the role of genetics and the environment in this process.”

Maureen K. Purcell, a research microbiologist with USGS’s Western Fisheries Research Center, is known for her work that advances the understanding of the immune response in fish to pathogens and vaccines. Purcell’s work delves into the role of both genetics and the environment in this process, for example the effect temperature has on a fish’s immune response.

Maureen Purcell
Maureen Purcell, PECASE Awardee 

"Maureen has quickly risen in the field of molecular and comparative biology," said Jill Rolland, Director of the USGS Western Fisheries Research Center. "In addition to her numerous publications, she has served on graduate student committees as far away as Norway and has attracted post-docs to come work with her both locally and internationally.  Dr. Purcell brings credibility and prestige to the USGS and Federal scientists, we are glad to have her as part of our team."

Purcell’s work has gained global recognition through a series of highly cited publications in high-impact journals that have significantly advanced the understanding of how finfish respond to microbial threats. Her research has included both cutting-edge studies that forward scientific understanding as well as highly relevant applied science important to fisheries managers.

“The quality of these accomplishments is remarkable and is amply demonstrated by a combination of the number of high-quality publications in peer-reviewed journals, the number of grants Dr. Purcell has successfully obtained, the range of scientists who have sought her out to collaborate on specific projects and the many requests for her teaching and technical assistance,” said James Winton, chief of the Fish Health Section at the USGS Western Fisheries Research Center.

Purcell’s research interests include the genetics of disease resistance and comparative immunology. In the laboratory, she is focusing on a number of finfish pathogens, including infectious hematopoietic necrosis, or IHNV, an infectious disease linked to fish farming that can cause fish mortality in farmed and native salmon populations.

Purcell has a Ph.D. in Fisheries from the University of Washington, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

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