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USGS research hydrologist Paul Hsieh was awarded the 2011 Federal Employee of the Year Medal for providing critical scientific information during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Paul Hsieh

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research hydrologist Paul Hsieh was awarded the 2011 Federal Employee of the Year Medal for providing critical scientific information during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Hsieh's calculations were key in helping senior federal officials and scientists conclude that the containment cap on the ruptured well was working and did not need to be removed, thus ensuring that no additional oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico.

"Dr. Hsieh's swift work and creative thinking was critical to the successful kill of the Macondo well," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who presented Hsieh with the award during a ceremony on September 15, 2011. "Paul's brilliance and determination in the face of a national crisis are to be commended, and I present this award on behalf of a grateful nation. In recognizing Paul, we also commend the thousands of scientists, public servants, citizens, and volunteers who worked around the clock to protect the Gulf of Mexico and cap the Macondo well."

The Federal Employee of the Year Medal is presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and recognizes annually a federal employee whose professional contributions exemplify the highest attributes of public service. Celebrating their 10th anniversary, the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (a.k.a. Sammies) have earned a reputation as one of the most prestigious awards dedicated to honoring America's civil servants.

"It is a real thrill to receive this type of recognition," said Hsieh, who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1968 when he was 14 years old. "It has always been my goal to be a public servant for the United States government. Earning this award convinces me that I've really made a contribution to the country that has adopted me as a citizen."

"Dr. Hsieh is well known for his ability to bring facts and observations to bear in an innovative and physically insightful way in solving complex scientific challenges," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt, who asked Hsieh to make the important calculation regarding pressure building at the well. "His mastery of hydrologic analyses and his ability to 'speak from the facts' in a clear and convincing manner were instrumental in guiding the thinking of key decision makers during the Gulf of Mexico well blowout."

Image: Battling Blaze on Deepwater Horizon Oilrig
Fireboat response crews battle blazing remnants of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig on April 21, 2010. The well would leak an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil before being successfully stopped. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Hsieh was one of hundreds of government and industry scientists and workers who worked to analyze, manage and, ultimately, end the oil spill. Hsieh, who lives in Menlo Park, California, had been in Houston, studying the pressure of the well. Every 6 to 12 hours, he prepared an analysis and defended its scientific validity.

After a 75-ton containment cap was placed on the well in July 2010, new concerns arose that the cap could cause a rupture and worsen the spill. Hsieh was back in California when he received a cellphone photo from a USGS colleague of a computer screen showing pressure readings on the well's cap. From that little picture, Hsieh labored through the night to evaluate the integrity of the well.

"I knew I had only one chance to get the calculations right," recalled Hsieh, who spent the entire night analyzing the data and modifying the model, which had originally been designed to model the behavior of water, not oil. "As a scientist, we are not trained to follow our gut instinct. We have to follow the data, and we did not have much time to make decisions, seek feedback from colleagues, or follow the normal course of action."

On the basis of Hsieh's evaluation, and following expert consultations and corroboration with additional evidence in Houston, the government recommendation on the morning of July 16, 2010, was that the Macondo well be allowed to remain shut in and stop leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Hsieh has had a distinguished 33-year career at the USGS. He has made many contributions to the scientific literature pertaining to fluid flow and rock deformation, field hydrological techniques, and analytical and numerical models of groundwater flow and contaminant transport through fractured rock. Chief among Hsieh's recent accomplishments is the development of a suite of graphical software packages to facilitate interpretation of model results. These public-domain tools have considerably advanced the degree to which geologists worldwide can gain insight from their simulations and effectively communicate results. Hsieh's contributions have been recognized by numerous awards, including the Department of the Interior (DOI) Superior Service Award in 1990, the DOI Meritorious Service Award in 2000, and the DOI Distinguished Service Award in 2008. He was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America in 2005 and has twice been cited for outstanding scientific refereeing by the American Geophysical Union, in 1993 and 2005. 

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