Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, President, Seismological Society of America
The SSA has been advancing the understanding of earthquakes and seismic phenomena for more than a century. Its President Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, highlights the main achievements of the Society during this time and elaborates its exciting plans for the future
To begin, could you outline the history of the SSA and how its activities and ambitions have evolved over the past 100 years?
SSA was founded in 1906 in San Francisco in the months following the April 1906 earthquake, modelled after the Seismological Society in Japan. The initial goal of the founders was: “To mould public opinion, set forth the truth and provide funds for research and investigation”. The SSA did not find the means to fund research directly but advocated for research in academic and government environments and held conferences to exchange the results. In 1911 the SSA began publication of a journal, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), to publish observations and research results from all over the world. For many years the SSA focused on publishing the Bulletin and sponsoring an annual conference. In the 1980s SSA added a second publication, Seismological Research Letters (SRL) and recommitted to a more active role in advocating for support for research in the field.
What are the aims of the SSA and how are you striving to achieve these?
The main aim of SSA is to advance the understanding of earthquakes and seismic phenomena for the benefit of society. We do this by publishing peer-reviewed research in our journals, providing opportunities for scientists to share their research and to engage with each other at our conferences, advocating for research and public safety, issuing position statements on topics of concern to the community and cooperating with other organisations in informing the public.
The Society values scientific integrity and excellence in all our programmes. Through our international membership and alliances with other international and regional groups we encourage international cooperation and collaborative exchange of knowledge. We advocate science-based decision making by policy makers. Through our publications, meetings and website SSA aims to foster the professional development of scientists and engineers and actively engage the next generation of scientists. Through our government relations programme we work – and encourage our members to work – to promote public safety and resilience by communicating to the public and policy makers.
How is your membership made up? What are some of the benefits your members enjoy?
SSA has over 2,500 members from the US and abroad who represent a variety of technical interests. In addition to seismologists, members include geophysicists, geologists, engineers, insurers, and policy makers actively engaged with government, academic, and private sectors to promote earthquake public safety. Members receive access to both of our journals and to regular email communications, discounts to register for conferences, and access to slide-casts of a number of meeting presentations. The SSA is a forum through which members have the opportunity to help advance earthquake sciences and informing public policy nationally and internationally.
The SSA produces a range of different publications. Could you provide an overview of these?
SSA publishes two bimonthly serial publications: BSSA a journal of advanced research in earthquake seismology and related fields and SRL, a publication dedicated to the general issues that affect seismology, earthquake engineering, and the public at large. BSSA has been the premier international journal of research in earthquake seismology and related disciplines for decades.
SRL is a unique journal – the first to provide a general forum for information communications among seismologists and between seismology and other disciplines. Both journals publish special issues dedicated to major earthquakes that become part of the permanent record for those events.
As part of its remit, the SSA provides scientific advice and information to the US governmental agencies and officials. Can you give some examples of how you have provided information on seismic issues to US legislators?
SSA leaders are frequently asked to testify at Congressional hearings on legislation related to earthquake programmes in the US. SSA has developed Congressional briefings on recent earthquakes. SSA been asked to brief staff on the uses and capabilities of seismology as a tool for monitoring explosions. Leaders and staff meet regularly with staffs of Congressional committees that oversee the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, the US Geological Survey, the National Science Foundation and others. We have policy statements that are regularly reviewed and posted on our website. SSA is an active participant in a number of coalitions of scientific and engineering societies, including the Congressional Hazards Caucus Alliance.
Education forms another important aspect of the SSA’s work. In what ways are you working towards improving public understanding of earthquakes and earth sciences?
In the education area, in addition to posting links and information on our website, we work in cooperation with several other larger organisations on key programmes. SSA co-sponsors a joint lecture series for public venues with the Incorporated Research Institutions in Seismology (IRIS). We collaborate with the American Geosciences Institute to promote Earth Science Week and their many educational programmes and curricula. We publicise resources available from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Southern California Earthquake Centre, and similar organisations around the world on our website, Facebook page and Twitter. The SSA also focuses on engaging students at all levels.
Currently, the ageing workforce is a major concern within the scientific community. To what extent are you promoting careers within seismology? Do you have any outreach programmes?
The SSA seeks to build the future of earthquake science and seismology by engaging students and professionals, recognising excellence in our field and raising public awareness of the science and its value to society. While we do have discounted membership rates for early career members and students and awards to reward excellence, to address this objective we are considering formal programmes in this area to increase student and early career scientists’ involvement in SSA leadership and other activities.
Within the SSA is a separately incorporated technical unit, the Eastern Section. How was the Eastern Section formed and what role does it play in the SSA?
The Eastern Section SSA was founded in the 1920s to organise meetings in eastern North America, as travel times to meetings in the western US were very long. Now it is focused on advancing the science of the seismology of eastern North America and intraplate seismology. ES-SSA holds meetings in the fall of each year. There is now a portion of SRL devoted to Eastern Section activities and related research papers. It is a small but dedicated group that also works to support regional networks in eastern US and Canada as well as encouraging student presentations at their meetings. In light of the Mineral Springs Earthquake of 2011, there has been an increase of interest on earthquake and seismic phenomena in this part of the country which the Eastern Section SSA will help to address.
The SSA also gives out a number of awards to a range of different outstanding scientists. Can you detail the categories and purpose of these awards?
The SSA awards programme is an important way to recognise excellence and raise public awareness of the science and its value to society. Our highest honour is the Harry Fielding Reid Medal, which is awarded for outstanding contributions in seismology and earthquake engineering. The Charles F Richter Early Career Award honours outstanding contributions to the goals of the Society by a member early in her or his career. The Frank Press Public Service Award honours work that serves the profession of seismology or the advancement of public safety or public information relating to seismology. The Distinguished Service to SSA Award honours individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the work of the SSA. The Joyner Lecturer is honoured for work at the interface of seismology and engineering. The joint COSMOS/EERI/SSA Bruce Bolt Medal recognises individuals whose accomplishments and leadership in strong-motion seismology have led to improved seismic safety.
Since the formation of the SSA over 100 years ago, how do you ensure that your aims and strategies retain their relevance as the years go on?
We are currently engaged in a strategic planning exercise to examine just that issue. In many ways we still honour the objectives, currently posted on our website, that were developed in the early years of the SSA’s existence (www.seismosoc.org/inside). We are updating them, however, with new language more appropriate to a digital age and new ways of accomplishing many of the same basic aims.
One of your aims is to promote research in seismology. What aspects of research are you currently encouraging scientists to pursue and why?
We have not chosen specific areas of research to promote over other areas. We invite the community to propose topics for special sessions at our annual meetings and they are highly varied, as you can see from the listing here: www.seismosoc.org/meetings/2012/sessions
Submissions to our journals are also widely varied. Over the years some areas remain constant like earthquake seismology and engineering, seismic hazard assessment, strong motion seismology and monitoring, while other disciplines have emerged, for example paleo-seismology, computational seismology and tsunami science.
What plans and activities does the SSA have in the pipeline for the coming five to 10 years or longer?
We are still finalising our new strategic plan but we know that we want to play a larger role in communicating trusted scientific knowledge among the scientific, engineering and related communities for broad societal benefit. This will mean that we need to find new ways of leading the advancement of earthquake sciences and informing public policy. To do this we must be fiscally sound and operationally excellent in a time when that may be challenging, given our size and the changing models for publishing. So it is likely that many of our new projects will involve collaborations for advancing science and partnerships for applying science to societal needs. We are exploring new (mainly digital) ways of engaging students and professionals, recognising excellence in our field and raising public awareness of the science and its value to society.