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Lucy Jones: The calm after the quake

Lucy Jones’ official curriculum vitae says that her undergraduate major was Chinese literature. After spending her junior year in Taiwan, a major earthquake center, the native Californian returned to school to finish her physics degree, but instead felt a different calling, to geology. Now a leading earthquake scientist, she is the voice of seismology for Southern California, and her new position as chair of the California Seismic Safety Commission (CSSC) has the potential to pump up the volume of her message.

Geologist Lucy Jones, head of the U.S. Geological Survey office in Pasadena, Calif., speaks to reporters from the media room at Caltech. Jones is the new chair of the California Seismic Safety Commission. Photo by Robert Paz, Caltech.

Jones’ transition to geology started with a brunch in her sophomore year at Brown University hosted by Jan and Terry Tullis, two geoscience professors. Over the next year abroad, she thought about geology. Because it was so late in her undergraduate career, however, she abandoned physics in favor of taking as many geology classes as possible before graduating and majoring in Chinese literature. Luckily, she had fulfilled the major requirements while in Taiwan.

In 1981, Jones completed her Ph.D. in geophysics at MIT. After a stint at the Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., working on Chinese earthquakes, she returned to Southern California in 1983, taking a postdoc with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at Caltech in Pasadena. She returned in time for “a spate of damaging earthquakes” larger than magnitude 5, she says.

Throughout those events and starting with a magnitude-5.9 Palm Springs quake in 1986, Jones has been called on to tell the public the basics behind earthquakes over the years, as one of many geologists in the USGS Pasadena office. In 1992, she made an indelible impression on Southern Californians, holding her toddler son (now a tall high school student) during several television interviews after the magnitude-6.1 Joshua Tree and the magnitude-7.3 Landers events.

“Lucy provides Southern California — and the nation — with a very calming voice and an authoritative voice to the public’s inquiry in disaster,” says Tom Jordan, a seismologist at the University of Southern California and the director of the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC). Her straightforward manner, he says, helps her in communicating complex science.

After the events of September 11, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times called for “a Lucy Jones for bioterrorism” to serve the region, conjuring up someone “able to deal with public anxiety,” Jordan says. “That gives you some indication that she really is a household name here in Southern California.” Her strong voice and high visibility give her “the potential of being one of the most effective chairs of CSSC ever,” he says.

An important body in the state of California, CSSC “exerts a lot of influence on both legislation and policy,” says Bill Ellsworth, who heads the USGS Earthquake Hazards Team in Menlo Park. The commission includes representatives from a broad spectrum of communities: scientists, engineers, emergency managers and others. Ellis Stanley, Los Angeles’ emergency manager, calls Jones “a true collaborator,” who can reach across the disciplines and concerns of all parties involved.

The organization’s primary mission is to review legislation that might affect any aspect of earthquake safety, as well as to inform the research and legislative agenda for California. To illustrate some of the issues she wants to address in her tenure as CSSC chair, Jones refers to last December’s San Simeon earthquake, during which two women died, struck by bricks from a crumbling historic building in downtown Paso Robles.

The more than 70-year-old building had been cosmetically improved, but remained unretrofitted. Jones says she wants “more teeth in the retrofitting enforcement program [and] more disclosure” under a 1992 “placarding” law, which requires signs notifying people as they enter a structure if it has been seismically retrofitted. “We’ve got to actually enforce the laws that we’ve got,” she says. “This level of shaking is to be expected anywhere in California. The building was just really bad.”

At the heart of many of her concerns, however, is education. The women who died in the San Simeon event ran outside, the most dangerous thing to do during an earthquake (instead, taking shelter under a table or doorframe is suggested as a general rule of thumb).

“There was essentially no earthquake education in the public schools when I grew up,” Jones says. “They taught us once a year” how to respond, and even the “duck and cover” exercises they practiced were more for the Cold War than an earthquake. She worries that may still be the case today, with earthquakes appearing in the California science curricula only in a sixth-grade plate tectonics lesson.

In addition to her public role, Jones continues to work on how to quantify the occurrence of aftershocks, and how that information can be used in forecasting earthquakes and their probabilities. As head of the USGS Pasadena office, she coordinates the earthquake hazard reduction research program in Southern California and oversees all research activities.

Jones also says that she takes science into her personal life. She and her husband Egill Hauksson, a seismologist at Caltech, have published about 20 papers together. Both manage key program components of the SCEC. “We can talk about science at home, not management issues,” she jokes. “We have kids — we don’t need to struggle over programs as well.” Jones is “someone who has balanced a science career and being a mother, raising a family,” Ellsworth says.

In her new position, “her public recognition,” Jordan says, gives her the potential to raise the profile of earthquakes, which has been somewhat buried by the threat of terrorism, particularly in California. “Whatever she accomplishes here in California,” Stanley says, probably “will translate across the nation as well.”

Naomi Lubick

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