2021 George P. Woollard Award

Presented to Cindy Ebinger

Cindy Ebinger

Cindy Ebinger
Tulane University


Citation by Kevin Mickus

It is my honor to introduce Cindy Ebinger as the George P. Woollard award winner for 2021. Cindy is a world leader in continental rifts, especially the East African Rift. Cindy is a perfect recipient of the Woollard Award as she applies the geophysical methods of seismology (mainly passive methods) and gravity, along with structural studies and geochronology to jointly understand problems relating to lithospheric strength, fault segmentation, and the temporal evolution of continental rifts. In performing these studies, she constructs projects that bring together world leaders in GPS, InSAR, geodynamical modeling, controlled source seismology and sedimentology to obtain a complete picture of the evolution of the rift.

Cindy began her studies of the East African Rift as a Ph.D student at MIT where she studied the thermal and mechanical development of the East African Rift, supervised by Leigh Royden, who was a Woollard Award winner. Her research led to several papers including the highly cited Tectonic Development of the Western Branch of the East African Rift, which was published in the Geological Society of America Bulletin and remains a definitive study on this portion of the rift. She continued her studies on the East African Rift with appointments at University of London, University of Leeds, University of Rochester and her current appointment as the Marshall-Heape Chair at Tulane University. During her time in England, she published several highly cited (>500 citations) papers on the along-axis segmentation of the rift (e.g., Hayward and Ebinger, 1989), how Cenozoic magmatism within central and east Africa resulted from a single plume (Ebinger and Sleep, 1998) and how various lithospheric processes associated with hot and cold spots can control how a rift evolves (Ebinger and Haywood, 1996).

In the 2000’s, her East African Rift work has concentrated on understanding the evolution of magmatic centers and how they control the extensional and volcanic processes within the rift system. This work has been centered on the main Ethiopian rift and the Afar Depression and Cindy and her colleagues have shown how magma assists in the rifting processes and in some cases is more important than structural based stretching. A portion of this work has been in the Danakil Depression, which is not the easiest or safest places to work but her work, which included collecting gravity data and establishing gravity base stations, has led us to more fully understand the links between continental rifting to the formation of oceanic lithosphere.

She has continued her East African Work while at Rochester and Tulane with NSF sponsored projects in Tanzania, northern Kenya and Zambia/Botswana. These projects have and will help us better understand the processes that form rifts. While working on these projects (and all of her projects), Cindy has enthusiastically supported undergraduate and graduate research and has led to many young scientists to study continental rifts worldwide.

In addition to her numerous research projects, Cindy has served as editor of several journals including Journal of African Earth Sciences, Geophysical Journal International and Basin Research and has been the Past President of the AGU Tectonophysics Division. In short, Cindy is an ideal recipient of the Woollard Award and will continue to excel in applying geophysics to solve geological problems.


Response by Cindy Ebinger

It is my great honor to be awarded the George P. Woollard Award in 2021, and to be in the company of great geophysicists and geodynamicists who have elucidated fundamental Earth processes in novel ways. I am grateful to have such supportive colleagues, and I thank all of my collaborators and students over the past few decades who have taught, and continue to teach me how to collect, analyze, and interpret data to constrain geomechanical models. As someone who is rarely speechless, I was indeed speechless when notified by GSA.

While a graduate student in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Joint program, I read papers by George ‘Doc’ Woollard, and grasped the importance of isostasy in gravity analyses, and as a first-order consideration of tectonic interpretations. Now I share this insight with undergrad and graduate students, many of whom use gravity and isostatic analyses in their research. Intrigued by his work, I researched, and found several parallels between our careers. Doc and I both acquired and analyzed seismic and gravity data on land and at sea, and we have both travelled the world. Unlike ‘Doc’ Woollard, I never stored explosives in my office, although as an undergraduate I did use a forklift to build a bunker for explosives at the Duke Marine Lab. The explosives were used as sound sources to image the water table on a barrier island, and my North Carolina blaster’s permit was a conversation starter (or ender).

I never intended to be a scientist. Instead, I followed paths that perplexed and challenged me. More often than not they involved exotic travel, largely because that was the best place to study the research problem, and also for the exposure to new cultures, and perspectives. Advisors (and perhaps officemates) may have urged fieldwork as a reprieve from my abundant energy. Never could I have imagined that my field, remote sensing, and potential field analyses of the Western rift, East Africa would still be acquiring citations, although it was a rather awesome project.

My undergrad and grad school experiences in East Africa gifted me lifelong friendships, insights, and more than a few adventures. The fieldwork and long-distance collaborations in Africa and South America, as well as a sabbatical at Addis Ababa University, exposed the massive challenges faced by scientists in developing countries where research funds are trivial. Now, with the internet, virtual meetings, and the increasing open access to data, the ‘playing field’ has hills, rather than mountains. I will continue working with GSA, AGU, and IRIS to mentor talented researchers throughout their careers. I encourage others to spend time at the posters of international students, or volunteer to mentor, or even teach in a prison. These experiences will enrich your research, offer new perspectives, and reveal new research challenges as our scientific community confronts climate change.