GSA Medals & Awards

2007 GSA Public Service Award

Mary Lou Zoback
Mary Lou Zoback
Risk Management Solutions

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Presented to Mary Lou Zoback

 Citation by J. David Applegate

Recognizing Dr. Mary Lou Zoback as both the Day medalist and Public Service awardee at the same ceremony could not be more appropriate. For while independent nominating processes produced the same result, it is only in the combination of these honors that we begin to capture the phenomenon that is Mary Lou.

Throughout her distinguished career, Mary Lou has consistently dedicated her talents to bringing the best science to bear on the solution to societal problems. Her instincts have always been collaborative, whether in her scientific achievements or in the application of science in the public interest. Her tireless efforts to educate the public on earthquake hazards in the San Francisco Bay region culminated in her leadership of a wide-ranging alliance to turn the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake into an unprecedented campaign to build public awareness and improve earthquake preparedness. As just one part of that campaign, Mary Lou led development of “Putting Down Roots in the Bay Area,” an earthquake preparedness pamphlet that was distributed to millions of people in northern California and has been translated into multiple languages.

Mary Lou recently retired from the U.S. Geological Survey after a long career of public service. In addition to her research activities, which earned her election to the National Academy of Sciences, Mary Lou served as the chief scientist of the Earthquake Hazards Team and northern California coordinator for the Earthquake Hazards Program. In those roles, she was a principal spokesperson for the Survey on earthquake-related topics, participating in countless media interviews, press conferences, documentaries, public lectures, and policymaker briefings.

Through her service on National Research Council boards and committees, Mary Lou has made important contributions to the application of geoscience to public policy decision making, reviewing policy topics that range from high-level radioactive waste disposal to the National Science Education Standards and the future of earth observation systems. Most recently, she served on the National Academies’ Committee for Science and Public Policy, which addresses broad policy questions at the highest level. She is only the third geoscientist in a century and a half to serve on the National Academies’ Governing Council. Indeed, Mary Lou has often been the lone geoscientist on such high-level bodies, and we all owe her a debt of gratitude for being our ambassador.

Mary Lou has a long history of distinguished service to GSA as a member of Council and the Executive Committee, as Cordilleran Section president and culminating in her term as GSA president in 2000. She used her GSA presidential address to lay out grand challenges for the earth and environmental sciences in the coming decades, focusing on those areas of improved understanding that would be needed to tackle environmental problems and, just as important, analyze the impact of proposed remedies. She recognized that this was not an undertaking for the geosciences or even physical and biological sciences in isolation, but rather these sciences must work together with the social sciences in order to develop workable and societally acceptable solutions. All the more appropriate than that in her new incarnation as vice president for Earthquake Risk Applications at Risk Management Solutions, Mary Lou has turned her talents to a new sector and a new challenge taking her well beyond the scientific quantification of hazard to the societal factors that encompass vulnerability and risk.

Throughout her career, Mary Lou has been unstinting in her willingness to nurture, advise, and otherwise help younger scientists. She has been actively involved in science education in her local schools and also participates in a national program, Expanding Your Horizons, which encourages girls in middle school toward careers in mathematics and the sciences. That means she is already helping us with a particularly difficult task that we in the geoscience community face: cloning Mary Lou. For we need a future supply of scientific leaders whose impeccable credentials grant access to the highest councils, whose curiosity impels them toward the application of their science to societal issues, and whose dedication and resolve drive positive change. We must find ways to encourage the best and the brightest in our science toward public service, creating viable career paths so that others may follow where she has led.

In recognition of her many accomplishments, her infectious enthusiasm, her genuine concern and what has been described as her irresistible leadership, Mary Lou Zoback is a most deserving recipient of the GSA Public Service Award. Now I wonder what comes next.

 top 2007 GSA Public Service Award - Response by Mary Lou Zoback

Thank you Dave, that citation means a great deal to me, coming from you, whom I’ve always looked up to as the epitome of selfless public service, as was recognized when you received this award two years ago.

Colin Powell, in his Lessons for Leaders, stated that “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” I feel the same way about public service—in serving, the rewards you reap far exceed what you give.

I’m also going to admit two secrets. The first will not be a big surprise—I have a hard time saying no. The second is that much of my service has been for selfish reasons—my criteria for saying yes is always whether I feel I am going to learn something new. I have never been disappointed. I have learned about other scientific disciplines and different approaches to science, and also have been greatly enriched by interactions with many bright and inspiring individuals.

As scientists, we are extremely privileged to be able to pursue our passions and curiosity as a career. With that privilege comes some responsibility, I believe. We are at a rare moment of crisis and opportunity. Finally the public, both in the United States and in much of the world, has accepted the idea of global change and many are beginning to understand the potentially dramatic consequences resulting from this grand experiment we are unwittingly conducting on our planet. As Earth scientists, we have a special obligation to educate the public and our business and policy leaders about both the short term and long term impacts of our present course of action.

Having served on advisory committees for the USGS, NSF, NASA, NOAA, DOE, and the National Academy, I have often witnessed big, bold thinking commensurate with the scale of the problems we are facing. What we are missing is leadership in creating an Earth Science agenda for the nation. Rather than constantly fighting to protect turf, we should forge an alliance and raise the profile of Earth Science on the national scientific scene. There are many competing interests and needs for the nation’s resources, but what Earth Sciences can offer can literally change our future. I urge each of you to contribute in your own way to help make this happen.

On a more personal note, I would like to end with a few words about the 1906 earthquake centennial, a major scientific, cultural, and historical event that captured local, national, and international media attention. This was, in part, due to several years of concerted planning and community building by the 1906 Earthquake Centennial Alliance, which I was privileged to lead. The Alliance consisted of over 250 member groups that put on more than 120 activities and events. My biggest thrill was seeing this major scientific event interpreted through the eyes of historians, ballet dancers, fire fighters, composers, photographers, story tellers, and even nuns.

I want to particularly acknowledge the scientific and public information contributions to the Centennial by scientists, web and GIS gurus, and publications staff of the USGS. This amazing group produced a 3d fault and block model of all of northern California and turned it into a 3d velocity model. Five different groups used this model to recreate the intensity and duration of 1906 shaking through ground motions simulations based on a reanalysis of the surveying data and constrained by a reanalysis of 1906 shaking and damage reports. A virtual helicopter tour allowed the public to view the Hayward fault from above, and they were able to see the fault below ground in a public trench exhibit. A century of geologic mapping in the San Francisco Bay Area was synthesized in a new uniform, digital geologic map accompanied by new regional maps of Quaternary faults, surficial deposits and liquefaction susceptibility. A century of progress in understanding earthquakes and their effects was highlighted in a student guide to earthquake science, field guides for the public, and a Google Earth virtual field trip of the 1906 earthquake. Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country, a public earthquake information and preparedness guide was produced with a number of public agencies and the Red Cross. Over two million copies were distributed. Heartfelt thanks to everyone involved for their cheerful hard work and creative energy. This was the most amazing, selfless scientific collaboration I have ever been a part of.

I gratefully thank the USGS for allowing me the time and encouraging my participation in many of these activities and the award committee and the GSA Council in honoring me.