GSA Medals & Awards

Young Scientist Award (Donath Medal)

Demian Michael Saffer
Demian Michael Saffer
Pennsylvania State University

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Presented to Demian Michael Saffer

 Citation by J. Casey Moore

Tonight Demian Saffer receives the Young Scientist Award for his outstanding contributions in the field of geofluids. His work at this multidisciplinary edge combines elements of geohydrology and tectonics, especially in the study of plate-boundary faults. His research integrates rigorous quantitative modeling with data collection and experimental work. For example, he has shown that the shape of tectonically constructed accretionary wedges at convergent margins is a reflection of sediment permeability. In his recent papers on the San Andreas fault, he has demonstrated that transport of mechanically generated heat by groundwater cannot explain the characteristic low heat flow of this fault. Thus, he furthered and clarified the argument for a so-called “weak” fault. In an important experimental study, he demonstrated that the smectite to illite clay transition cannot explain the upper aseismic to seismic transition. In these examples, Demian has brought new and quantitative thinking, experimental approaches, and careful data analysis to fundamental problems in the geosciences.

Demian’s analytical ability has not only been focused on his own contributions. He has received high praise for his work on panels of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. He has also been a major contributor to a series of proposals that underlie the most ambitions IODP plate boundary drilling effort yet: that to drill into an active seismogenic portion of a subduction zone.

Finally Demian’s clarity of thought also resonates through his teaching, where he is inspiring many students both at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Demian’s colleagues, teachers, and family have outlined some the reasons for Demian’s professional success:

He’s really smart, works very hard, and is consequently very productive. His strong intellect is balanced by humility, self-effacement, and the ability to have fun.

Demian listens to others, learns from others, and puts value on their contributions.

He’s dependable. When he makes a commitment, he delivers.

And finally, he rises to the occasion when given new responsibilities.

What underlies Demian’s accomplishments and personal qualities? How did he become the person he is?

Unquestionably, Demian possesses strong genetic heritage. His mother tells me that he was trying to understand how the world works from his earliest years on.

Secondly, his family obviously provided a supportive environment for his growth through constantly trying to satisfy and encourage his natural curiosity. There are stories of trips to the rock store, tackle boxes full of rocks, and lots of time spent along the seashore. In the words of this father, they also stayed out of his way and allowed his intellect to flourish.

His teachers were important and typified by Paul Karabinos at Williams College, where Demian was an undergraduate. Paul introduced Demian to the modeling of stress along the San Andreas fault and remarks that he always considered Demian as a colleague, even as an undergraduate.

Demian arrived at the University of California at Santa Cruz with a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship. He was very young and completed his Ph.D. in four years, a harbinger this award. His NSF fellowship gave him a great deal of freedom to develop his interests. In this context, I was his advisor in the truest sense, suggesting opportunities rather than narrowly directing him. Demian’s innate quantitative abilities flourished at Santa Cruz under the tutelage of Barbara Bekins, who taught him the subtleties of numerical modeling. He also gathered an appreciation for value of good data and its constraints through interacting with many outstanding graduate students and a diverse faculty.

As a National Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey, Demian continued to work with Barbara Bekins and also Steve Hickman on geohydrogeology of the San Andreas fault. Independently, he was exposed to experimental work through collaboration with Chris Marone, an association that ultimately was a powerful draw to his present position at Penn State University.

He has had a continuing association with the Ocean Drilling Program and benefited enormously from this rich multidisciplinary environment.

And finally his partner, Melanie Forbes, is providing a supportive environment for his life and career.

In summary these circumstances have developed a person with ability, desire, good interpersonal skills, a person who is willing to work at disciplinary boundaries and is equally comfortable with theory, experiment, and data.

It is particularly pleasant to be making an award to Demian Saffer, who is on such a steep upward professional trajectory, a person who is making outstanding scientific contributions and continuously developing his intuition, creativity, and originality. I am certain that GSA’s Young Scientist Award will help spur Demian on to ever-greater accomplishments.

 top 2005 Donath Medal - Response by Demian Michael Saffer

I am both thrilled and honored to be this year’s recipient of the Donath Medal. As a hydrogeologist working to make connections between physical hydrogeology and geologic, geochemical, and tectonic processes, my research has afforded the opportunity to collaborate with — and learn from — world-class petrologists, laboratory rock mechanicists, and earthquake seismologists, among others. As is the case with most scientific endeavors, I share the small measure of success I have had with a number of colleagues, mentors, family members, and friends.

First, I’d like to thank my parents, Jeff and Susie Saffer, for both sparking and nurturing a broad interest in scientific discovery. Immersion in “hands-on” science often took unusual form, including “dissection day” when my older sister was ten and I was eight. This was my Dad’s idea of an educational weekend activity involving scalpels, cow’s hearts, and the picnic table on the deck behind our house. I also thank my parents for their continued support and patience, even as I took apart most of our small appliances (but did not put them back together, naturally), and as I invariably used my entire weekly allowance — or at least that portion of it not docked for dismantling appliances — to keep a local store named “Stones and Stuff” in business.

As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I was fortunate to find myself in academic departments with vibrant synergy between faculty and students. I am particularly grateful to my research mentors, Paul Karabinos at Williams College and Casey Moore at U.C. Santa Cruz, not only for their technical guidance on the tectonic and structural geology aspects of my research, but for treating me as a collaborator first and as a student second. Both also provided me with extraordinary perspective and helpful advice. The combination of independence and respect given to their students by Paul and Casey kindles creativity and a passion for research, and is a philosophy that I strive to incorporate in my roles as a teacher and a research advisor.

I also owe thanks to Barbara Bekins. Throughout the past nine years, she has been instrumental in my development as a hydrogeologist. In addition to formal training in computational hydrogeology, I have learned to be a conscientious and careful modeler by following her example. Perhaps most importantly, Barbara has taught me how to distill complicated coupled problems involving fluid flow and deformation to simple, geologically relevant, and tractable ones that are constrained by observation.

As a young faculty member, I have had the pleasure of working with many broadly interested and energetic colleagues whom I also consider as friends. Over lunch discussions, seminars, and the occasional beer, Peter Flemings, Chris Marone, Paul Heller, Mike Cheadle, and Steve Holbrook have pushed me to reach for a more complete understanding of intertwined hydrologic and mechanical phenomena, and have opened my eyes to new research directions. On a personal level, they have welcomed me to new places, and shown me by example how to be a model colleague. As comrades on research projects and as fellow shipboard scientists on cruises, Mike Underwood and Harold Tobin have both been informal mentors to me. I have also been lucky to have talented and driven graduate students so early in my career. In all, I couldn’t ask for better colleagues to learn alongside.

My wife Melanie has been incredibly patient and supportive of me, and for this I am perhaps most thankful. I am truly privileged to have a partner who understands and shares an interest in my work, but at the same time has shown me the immeasurable value of keeping my work life in perspective.

Finally, I would like to thank Dr. and Mrs. Donath and GSA for establishing this award to recognize and encourage young scientists. Accepting this award will fuel an appetite for new challenges as I look toward the future, and as I endeavor to provide the same inspiration and opportunities for others that I have been fortunate enough to receive. Thank you again for this wonderful honor.