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Career Profile: David Applegate

U.S. Geological Survey

At the time of this interview conducted on April 5, 2011, David Applegate was the Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards. He is now serving as the Associate Director for Natural Hazards.

Click on a topic below, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Current Job Description * Educational Background and Career Path * Key Decision Points in Career Path * Favorite Part of Job * Challenges in Job * Balance * Myths and Misconceptions * Advice


Briefly describe your current job responsibilities, perhaps by describing a typical day, week, month, or quarter.

I don't have many 'typical' days. My job is to coordinate geohazard activities within the USGS, in particular earthquakes and geomagnetic storms but also advising on volcanoes, landslides, tsunami and others. I also work with outside agencies and prepare briefings for policymakers. I help build a case for the value of the work that the USGS does within the government both for funding and awareness-building purposes. There is also a great deal of public interaction involved in my job, mainly in the form of press interviews and public briefings. I'm not an expert in all these hazards, but the USGS is full of expert scientists, and I'm a translator of the expert's science knowledge to other non-expert audiences.

When a big disaster strikes, these are the teachable moments. I work to coordinate work between agencies, meet with the press, meet with policy makers for congressional briefings, and ensure that the public can access our information, which they do in the millions. After the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami disaster, I didn't sleep for the first 36 hours. It's that hectic.

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.

I began college at Yale University as a history major but ended up earning a B.S. in geology. Thanks to the encouragement of my older brother, I read John McPhee's books Basin and Range and Rising from the Plains as a sophomore. These romanticized accounts of geology drew me in enough to take a history of geology course for my science distribution. A great professor and great TAs led me to change my major. The following summer's field camp in Idaho and Wyoming and a senior thesis in the Olympic Mountains in Washington sealed the deal.

The summer after college, I completed a NAGT summer internship at the USGS office in Golden, Colorado. It was a great experience, working with several superb field geologists. Funding was tight that year, so we were not out doing field work, but I was thrilled to be at the foot of the Rockies and working on a number of interesting projects, using a giant 3-D optical plotter to transcribe field measurements from air photos to topo maps (truly a lost art now), researching seismicity due to isostatic rebound in the Puget Sound, and measuring tectonically uplifted benches from stereo pairs of aerial photos of Isla Mocha off the coast of Chile. Indeed, when last February's magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck off the coast of Chile, my work at the Survey came full circle.

I went straight on to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn a Ph.D in geology. Even as I was using structural geology and geochronology to unravel the tectonic history of the Funeral Mountains in Death Valley National Monument, I maintained my interest in politics, foreign affairs, and the societal relevance of geology.

Once I completed my PhD, I applied for a Congressional Science Fellowship with the American Geophysical Union, spending a year working for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on issues including the proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which was not far from my Death Valley field area. This was a major turning point in my career path because it allowed me to combine my interests in geology and policy.

That fellowship led me to my next job working for the American Geological Institute on science and policy issues such as energy, environmental contamination, natural hazards, and the teaching of evolution. Hazards became a real passion of mine. A colleague, Pete Folger, and formed a broad coalition to establish a caucus in the U.S. Senate to raise awareness on hazard issues. That focus on hazards policy helped lead me into my current position working for the USGS.

It is important to remember that it is not only what you train for, but all the other things you do that define your skill set. While at AGI, I also worked as the Editor of Geotimes magazine (now Earth). I fell into this position through editing a college newspaper back in my undergraduate years.

What were key decision points or factors that were important in deciding your career path? Were there any specific challenges or difficult moments that arose while making your decision?

Leaving the academic world was challenging because academia was comfortable and what I knew – both parents and all my siblings are academics. When I left, it was into a different world, the world of politics and policymaking. While the transition was hard for me to come to terms with, I felt that taking the Congressional Fellowship was the right thing for me to do based on my skills and interests. A big factor in making my decision to work in policy was my desire to put my science knowledge to work for society. I've been able to fulfill this desire in spades working for the USGS.

What do you like best about your work?

My job has a very clear objective - translate science for the public, policy makers, and the media in order to maximize the impact that our science has on reducing losses from natural disasters. This work gives me a sense of mission and purpose. I enjoy learning the science from the experts and making it accessible to others. I also enjoy making the case for why the work of the USGS is important and necessary.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?

It can be difficult to meet expectations, as expectations are continually growing and changing. As new geohazard events occur, our folks come up with new and better ways to put our science to work. For each next new hazard event, it becomes important to incorporate those innovations while also supporting all that people already have come to expect. Since budgets don't tend to grow at the same pace of expectations, there is a constant balancing act between encouraging innovation and delivering what emergency managers and many others depend on to do their job.

During geohazard events, I'm busy working on getting the word out about that event, but I can't neglect all the other aspects of my job, which increases my work load tremendously. Tasks become either important or urgent. Urgency can easily occupy all my time, but things which are important still need to be addressed.

Working for government can be challenging, too. Funding issues and bureaucracy add challenge and stress to the job. I know how much good work our scientists can do given the resources, and that can be quite frustrating when resources are the limiting factor.

Many geoscientists entering the workforce are interested in balancing their personal and professional life. Please share information about your situation, your ideas and experiences about balance in your life and what challenges you have maintaining balance.

My job can be all-consuming, especially during a disaster. It is difficult to maintain balance.

A mentor of mine used to say "you get to pick two: family, work, or sleep." That is where I am right now, with young twins at home. My work is very engaging, and my family is very important. So, right now sleep is being sacrificed. I'm getting better at cutting back on travel for work and delegating work where I can, but it's still a struggle to maintain balance.

Are there any myths about your job that you would like to help dispel?

People are cynical toward government, government agencies, and government workers. The government workers who are my colleagues have tremendous drive and dedication. We see it as an honor to be working in our capacity. Our scientists are very dedicated and are there to serve their fellow citizens of the world.

What advice do you have for graduate students or post-docs preparing for careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career?

Think broadly about your skills and training. You may think of yourself as being trained very narrowly to do specific tests or analyses, but you can look at your training as being very broad. As a geoscientist, you have tremendous analytical skills that are broadly applicable. People in other fields (law, business, etc.) see their skills as broad. Scientists need to think this way, too.

Educate yourself about the broad range of jobs that are out there. Use internships to explore career choices. Also, consider applying for a fellowship. Congressional sicnece fellowships, Presidential Management Fellowships, and AAAS-run federal agency science fellowships are a pipeline into the policy world. They give you a chance to try your skills and see what a career is like. AGI, AGU, the Geological Society of America, and AAAS all offer and coordinate fellowships that are open to geoscientists. These can enhance your skills, give work experience, and can sometimes lead to permanent jobs.

Communication skills are tremendously important. Care about being a good writer and speaker. The ability to write clearly and concisely and to be able to distill complex ideas are valuable to all careers after academic life.

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