Dr. Lucy Jones, the earthquake scientist

As Nepal continues to struggle with the aftermath of the 7.8 earthquake which rocked the country on 25 April 2015, DiscovHER talked to Dr. Lucy Jones, one of the world’s most eminent earthquake specialists.

A seismologist with the US Geological Survey, and a visiting research associate at Caltech Seismological laboratory since 1983, Dr. Lucy Jones spearheaded The ShakeOut Scenario, a wide-scale earthquake drill focusing on the impact of the earthquake on social and economic systems. She spent last year devising a city-wide earthquake action plan to retrofit older buildings and improve water and communications infrastructure to ensure preparedness in the city of Los Angeles.

A born communicator, whose earliest memory is her mother crouching over her in a quake, Jones sees her primary role as “communicating science to make it usable to the people.” Her no-nonsense, panic-quelling ability to inform and reassure the public in equal measure has made her a household name in her native California. A public figure who has accompanied Californians through every seismic wave of the last 30-plus years, she’s the scientist the media calls before the buildings have stopped shaking.

She kindly took some time to answer DiscovHER’s questions.

What lessons can be drawn from the earthquake in Nepal?

The lesson from Nepal is that taking earthquake risk seriously and doing whatever one can with resources available makes a difference. A non-profit called GeoHazards International that is dedicated to bringing modern earthquake design practices to the developing world, had their first project in Nepal, beginning in 1997. Nepal faces huge challenges as a poor country sitting on top of one of the biggest earthquake zones in the world. But because of the 17 years of work, developing cost effective building techniques, establishing building codes, etc., they had much less damage than they would have otherwise. I hope that California uses this as a reason to look at what else we can do.

Can you describe your day-to-day research? What are you working on right now?

My research has evolved. I spent much of my early career studying earthquake statistics - how to use the history of earthquakes to determine the probability of future events, especially foreshocks and aftershocks. This put me in a public role and I came to understand the disconnection between the science products in professional journals and needs of public officials for the information. I then moved into creating integrated multi-disciplinary products on disaster scenarios that help policy makers and other decision makers understand the implications of the risks that we face. My last big project was with the City of Los Angeles to create "Resilience by Design." It’s a comprehensive plan to increase the resilience of Los Angeles to earthquakes, that integrates science with public policy. 

Can you tell us why - and how - California needs to prepare for “the Big One”?

I led a project to create a model of what the "Big One" - a M7.8 on the San Andreas fault would be like for Southern California. It’s as predictable as the M7.8 that hit Nepal - we are both at plate tectonic boundaries. 

“Imagine America Without Los Angeles” was the title of a talk you gave last year. What is the reality of that scenario?

That work led to my talk "Imagine America Without Los Angeles". That is a real possibility but not because it will fall into the ocean or that everything will be destroyed. Rather we worry that life will be so miserable after the earthquake has disrupted our infrastructure, damaging our water, electrical, sewer and telecommunication systems, that people will give up and move elsewhere.

What is your advice to young people interested in a career in seismology?

My advice to young people, especially girls and young woman, is to work hard on math skills. Math is the language of science and without it, you will not be able to conduct research or to effectively use the results of others' research.

What is the gender ratio like in your particular field?

The gender ratio in my field is equalizing. When I started graduate school, I was the only woman in geophysics at MIT. Now the graduate students are pretty evenly split, and 4 of the last 5 PhD hires in my office were women.

Dr. Lucy Jones is Science Advisor for Risk Reduction, SAFRR Project, Natural Hazards Mission Area at the U. S. Geological Survey. She graduated from Brown with a bachelor of Arts degree in Chinese Language and Literature, Magna Cum Laude, in 1976 – devoting her senior project to evidence of earthquakes in ancient Chinese literature. At the age of 24, in February 1979, now a Ph. D. student in geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jones would become the first American scientist to work in China after normalization of relations when she worked at the Institutes of Geology and Geophysics of the State Seismological Bureau in Beijing. She has received numerous awards, including the Alquist Award from the California Earthquake Safety Foundation (which rewards people raising the level of public awareness and commitment to earthquake safety), Woman of the Year from the California Science Center and the Shoemaker Award for Lifetime Achievements in Science Communication from the USGS. Outside her work, she’s a passionate musician, playing Handel or Bach on the viola de Gamba.

Follow Dr. Lucy Jones on Twitter: https://twitter.com/drlucyjones

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