Tom Parsons, Geophysicist, GWC Class of 1983

Tom ParsonsTom Parsons graduated from Golden West College in 1983. He received his Bachelor of Science in Applied Geophysics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and his Ph.D. in Geophysics from Stanford University. In 2000, he was awarded the Shoemaker Communication Award, which recognizes United States Geological Survey scientists, writers, editors, and designers who have provided extraordinary examples of communicating and translating complex scientific concepts and discoveries into words and pictures that capture the interest and imagination of the American public. One of our country’s top research seismologists, Tom has written over 85 research publications in his field of endeavor.

What factors/influences lead to you deciding on your major?
I’ve always been a curious person. When I was a child, we had a globe that sat out near my room, and I would spin it, study the continents, and imagine going to all the exotic places on it. It had topographic relief on it and I was curious why mountains, oceans, or islands formed where they did. I suppose I never lost that curiosity about the Earth. When I was in school I was an avid rock climber and backpacker, so I thought a career spent studying the Earth might allow me to be outdoors a lot (it has). I had intended to be a geology major, but then I took physics classes taught by Bernie Gilpin at GWC. He enlivened the subject so well that the math began to make sense at a gut level, and I realized that geophysics was the best fit for me.

Please name some of your most significant research publications for our readers.
It’s difficult to assign significance to one’s own work. I recently have been working on studies using the entire global catalog of large earthquakes, trying to understand how one leads to another. In terms of being cited, probably the most important papers I’ve worked on were: (1) a report in Science following the large earthquakes in Turkey, and (2) another in Nature after the great China events. In these studies I worked with teams of scientists to develop new methods for rapidly assessing the change in hazard following large earthquakes.

You received the Shoemaker Communications Award, what is it?
This is recognition within USGS for effectively communicating science ideas and results to the public. It’s named after Gene Shoemaker (as was the Shoemaker-Levy comet that some people might remember), the great planetary geologist who worked for USGS, and who had a wonderful ability to make science accessible.

Have you received additional awards or recognition since 2007?
I’m very proud to be on the Alumni Pillar at Golden West College.

For our readers: Describe your role of being a Research Geophysicist for the U.S.
The goal of my job is to mitigate hazard from earthquakes and tsunamis. To do this we must better understand the fundamental physics controlling these events. We must also learn how best to forecast them both in space and time. I work in groups with academics and other USGS researchers to conduct experiments using field observations and numerical modeling to study the earthquake cycle. We use these results and the work of many others to produce maps and reports detailing the probability of strong shaking, or inundation in the case of tsunamis. These products are used in the uniform building codes and for setting insurance rates.

I’m sure our readers would like to ask what thoughts you have on the recent earthquakes in California and around the world, what does this mean to the average person?
Some of my recent work has been with the long-term global earthquake catalog trying to understand linkages amongst large earthquakes. In the news lately it seems like we have been seeing tragic effects from a lot of large events, most notably in Haiti. However, the rate of these events and their apparent clustering in time is not unusual, and appears to be coincidental. We typically see about 16 major earthquakes every year. Most of the time they happen in remote parts of the world. This year unfortunately, we’re seeing more of them strike populated regions.

Do you have time to be involved in community activities?
It seems most of the community activities I’m involved with are attached to my kids’ school. There’s always something brewing there with coaching sports or fundraisers. I do go to other schools and speak in classrooms, and we have community events and an open house at USGS each year in Menlo Park for kids. We also have a public lecture series.
With your heavy schedule, do you have time to relax with hobbies?
Not a whole lot. I play old-guy basketball with friends from work. I love mountain biking but don’t get a lot of time to do it these days. Although, my 9-year-old son and I just rode the Solvang 50-mile ride a few weeks ago. I have a 1969 Mercury Cougar I inherited from my father that we’re fixing up. We do also travel a fair bit and sometimes we can combine work with play; last Spring we spent a month in Rome, and while I was working at the institute there, my wife and kids got to really know the city and its history.

You are highly successful in your field and very focused. What advice would you give college students who are still trying to find a direction in life?
I’m sure it sounds clichéd, but I really believe in following your interests above all else. My father always said his dad told him that, and he always said the same to my brothers and me. I’d suggest to students not to worry about following trends, or about which future job might pay the most. Instead, I’d recommend taking a broad array of classes to see what enthuses them the most, and what lines up with their personal interests and skills. Golden West offers a fantastic opportunity to sample nearly everything, and in far greater depth than is possible at most 4-year schools.

What is your philosophy of life?
It’s pretty simple, keep family and friends close, and keep trying to make a difference.

We should mention in the article that you are married and have children.
I’m married to Korina De Bruyne (GWC alumna class of ‘85, now an MD), and I have one daughter, Sophie age 11, and one son, Willem age 9.