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Seismologist Brian Tucker
Seismologist Brian Tucker, a graduate of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., spent nearly 10 years as a state geologist with the California Geological Survey (earning a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University along the way). In 1991, however, he left the survey and founded GeoHazards International (GHI), a nonprofit organization in Palo Alto, Calif., that collaborates with concerned governments and citizens in earthquake-vulnerable communities in developing countries to initiate natural hazards safety projects.
For his work, Tucker has won many awards, including a 2002 Macarthur Fellowship and a 2007 George Brown Award from the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation, which he will receive in Washington, D.C., in October. He talked with Geotimes’ Carolyn Gramling about GHI's work, traveling the world and how to spend a Macarthur "genius grant."
CG: Why did you create GHI?
While I was finishing my Ph.D., I spent a couple of years in Tajikistan doing research, and I saw what earthquakes could do in a place other than Southern California. There, the buildings are thick-walled, thick-roofed adobe structures, and it was obvious how much more vulnerable that kind of construction is compared to the single-story wood-framed homes found here. Because I traveled back and forth over those years, I had the opportunity to travel in India, Afghanistan, Iran, Greece and even Peru, and saw that millions and millions of people lived in those conditions. Later, when I was head of geological hazards at the California Geological Survey, I thought it might be possible to adapt and apply the land-use and structural engineering techniques, as well as public policy messages, to the most vulnerable parts of the world. And those two things came together in my mind: The biggest need was not in California or Japan, but in these communities.
CG: One of GHI's primary focuses seems to be on school retrofitting.
CG: Why do you consider the Kathmandu project (from 1996 to 1999) your biggest success so far?
CG: You've said funding is one of the biggest hurdles. Did you use your Macarthur genius grant to help with that?
CG: What new projects are you starting up now?
Negotiating politics and economic frustrations in other countries can be tiring and annoying, but it's really fascinating to see how different communities are organized and what are the factors that are important to develop a country so that children can have a better life than their parents — which we take here as kind of a given.