When I was growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up during the time when the space program was really booming, and they had just walked on the moon. I remember my brother and I used to get up and watch the launches at four in the morning. When the first space shuttle flew, my parents drove us out to watch the landing in the desert. They always encouraged us to pursue our interests, no mater how out of this world they seemed.
Then when I went to college at the University of California, Los Angeles. I thought I was going to be an aerospace engineer. But when I got to school, I realized an engineering degree wasn’t really what I wanted. Eventually, I did decide to become a seismologist, which is a geologist, or earth scientist, who specifically studies earthquakes. In other words, I study the Earth’s plates, pieces of the Earth’s crust that move and interact with one another.
I didn’t know I was going to get a Ph.D. in seismology until I was nearly done with school and made the decision after doing very well within the geology department. I earned my Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and now I am a professor at the University of Texas, El Paso. My job is split between research and teaching.
Right now, I’m working on the Sumatra earthquake that created the huge tsunami in East Asia in December of 2004. Although tsunamis are commonly called “tidal waves,” their cause has nothing to do with the cycle of the tides. For this reason, scientists prefer the Japanese word, “tsunami,” meaning, “harbor wave.” An earthquake originating in the ocean floor causes a tsunami. If the earthquake is big enough, then it displaces water, causing giant waves to form. These waves are what we then call tsunamis.
For example, imagine sitting in the bathtub and shifting both your legs suddenly under the water. It would probably make a big splash or even create some waves, wouldn’t it? This is a lot like what happens to water when land shifts under the sea floor. It’s frightening in some respects. Most earthquakes, even the fairly large ones, last under sixty seconds. The Sumatra earthquake was so large that it took 450–500 seconds to rupture. No wonder it was such a huge tsunami!
Part of the work I’m doing is to try and find a way to establish an early warning system that works and can save more lives. The current Tsunami Warning System alerts people who live near the Pacific Ocean coastline. When geologists detect an earthquake on the ocean floor, they notify coastal areas as soon as they can so that people can leave the area. Our goal is to get these warnings out even faster then we can now.
I really enjoy my job because I have the freedom to work on things I love. My advice to other people is always to do what you really enjoy because that’s what you’re going to be best at, and you shouldn’t worry if you don’t know what your passion is yet. I thought the moon was my destination, but it wasn’t. Do the things that you enjoy, and you will be successful with them—whatever they may be.