Down to Earth With: Kerry Sieh

by Jay R. Thompson
Friday, August 29, 2014

After more than 30 years as a professor and researcher at Caltech, earthquake geologist Kerry Sieh (pronounced “sea”) surprised his colleagues when he pulled up stakes in 2008 for a rare opportunity in Southeast Asia to be the founding director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore.

Born in Iowa, Sieh developed a love of nature at a young age, in part through frequent visits to his grandparents' farms. He spent his teenage years in Newport Beach, Calif., and then studied geology at the University of California at Riverside. After graduating with highest honors in 1972, Sieh went on to earn a doctorate in geology at Stanford University.

In April, the Seismological Society of America awarded him its highest honor, the Harry Fielding Reid Medal, for his leadership in the field of paleoseismology and great contributions to understanding earthquakes.

Sieh spoke with EARTH contributor and former intern Jay R. Thompson about his passion for science, the transformative experience of saving someone’s life, and the challenge of being openly gay in Singapore.

JRT: How did you get into geology?

KS: There are two basic reasons I ended up doing geology. First, I had a lot of time as a kid to explore. All the unstructured play on the farms and in the woods — like having to figure out how to cross a stream without getting wet or how to catch a fish with my hands and not drown — gave me a strong attraction to nature and to solving natural puzzles.

Second, I’m gay. From an early age, that led me away from interacting with people. I knew I didn’t fit in from the time I was eight or 10 years old. I was melancholy and had pretty low self-esteem. As far as I knew, no one else in the world felt the feelings that I did. So, I drifted away from social interactions and toward places where I didn’t have to fit in — the countryside, books, the worlds of my own imagination. All that led me toward doing science.

JRT: When did your self-perception begin to change?

KS: Like most kids, it was gradual, of course, and began when I left home and headed out on my own. One important moment in the building of my self-confidence happened when I was 20. That summer, I had a field class in one of the mountain ranges of Nevada, between Reno and Salt Lake City. One afternoon, as my field partner and I were walking along a little hillside ledge, a mountain lion jumped out from nowhere and attacked him, knocking him off the ledge. As he was lying motionless on the slope below and the mountain lion was about to pounce on him again, I pelted it with rocks and drove it away. To make a long story short, I ended up saving his life.

It was the first time in my life that I’d ever felt heroic and courageous, and the experience did a lot for my poor self-image. Both of us went on to become professors of geology.

JRT: How did you help initiate paleoseismology as a discipline while studying the San Andreas Fault during your doctoral studies at Stanford?

KS: I just put common things together in a way that no one had thought to do before. At the time, most geologists studied layers of sediment and geological deformations to find petroleum or minerals and such. Most earthquake scientists were seismologists who used the squiggles on seismograms to interpret the sizes and locations of earthquakes. During my doctoral work in the mid-1970s, I used geological methods to study earthquakes. I and some other geologists started looking at mountain building in relation to earthquakes.

I found layers of river sand and swamp peat that had been broken over and over again by the San Andreas Fault north of Los Angeles. That allowed me to do something that seismologists couldn’t do. I could see series of large earthquakes through hundreds of years — I showed that the average interval between earthquakes there was about 130 years.

By now, those techniques have been applied all over the world, and seismology is much bigger now than just looking at squiggles on a seismogram.

To me, what’s particularly satisfying about receiving the Harry Fielding Reid Medal this year is that it is a recognition that earthquake science has matured into a very broad, richly interesting, multidisciplinary field.

JRT: After three decades at Caltech, what took you to Singapore?

KS: In 2007, I planned an escape from the over-stimulation of Caltech. In Singapore, I thought I’d be able to focus on writing a book and conceiving of a companion television series. But almost as soon as I’d arrived, the president of my host university asked me to consider writing a proposal for the Singapore government’s new RCE [Research Centers of Excellence] program. They were seeking bold new ideas that might lead the country’s science in wholly new directions. The tragic 2004 tsunami in nearby Sumatra had shown them that their neighborhood is a dangerous one. Today, there are five RCEs, each with a budget of about $200 million, and one of them is the Earth Observatory of Singapore.

JRT: What do you do as director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore?

KS: The Earth Observatory focuses on geohazards research, but we’re within Nanyang Technological University so that we can train younger generations of scientists. Over the past few years, I’ve been hiring young faculty and helping them get their research programs up and running. Over the next few years, I’ll be working hard to ensure that the observatory deserves to continue into the next decades as a premier place for geohazards research and application.

JRT: What is it like doing geology in Singapore?

KS: It’s wonderful to be in the middle of Southeast Asia — it’s such a geological wonderland, but of course, with all its earthquake faults and volcanoes and tsunamis, rising seas and climate change, it’s also a dangerous place. I imagine that being here now is a bit like being in California in 1850. Such an amazing, but geologically wild place with so little known about it. The earth science challenges are as big or bigger as they are in North America, but there are at least a hundred times fewer people working on the problems.

When I’m interviewing a potential young faculty member, I sometimes say, “Brilliance, energy and accomplishment aren’t enough to be successful here — you also have to have a frontier spirit.” It’s not like Caltech or Stanford, where the academic infrastructure is already built. We’re still establishing ourselves.

JRT: Do you ever get out into the field?

KS: I used to get out about three months every year. I’m sad to say I now spend most of my time in the office, setting up the observatory as a base for the observatory’s researchers. This new role is tough for me, because I got into this business because I loved to explore nature, not because I wanted to direct an observatory. I do research mostly vicariously now. Maybe when I hang up my director’s hat, they’ll give me a little cubicle in the corner and enough money each year to get back out into the field in Sumatra or Myanmar or wherever else there’s good work to do.

JRT: Are there challenges to living in Singapore?

KS: My partner Kemp and I would not have come to Singapore if the prime minister and the former prime minister hadn’t made encouraging statements about the treatment of gay people in the year before we arrived. And we have found the country and the region to be very friendly toward us. I feel safer here than I would in some parts of the U.S., actually. But, frankly, I don’t feel as comfortable here now as when we got here. LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people still don’t have the same rights or opportunities that others have here.

JRT: Are you still a U.S. citizen? Do you think you’ll stay in Singapore?

KS: At one point, I actually thought about giving up my U.S. citizenship because I was so taken by Singapore’s vision — the fact that they had the foresight to establish something like the observatory. Most earth scientists would agree, I think, that such a large commitment just isn’t feasible in the U.S. these days — even though the U.S. is thousands of times richer.

Singapore is an impressive place. They’ve built a multi-ethnic, vibrant, economically vital society. Politically and economically, they really have their act together. All countries talk about taking care of their citizens, but Singapore really does.

But, the longer I’m away from the United States, the more I realize that I’ll always be an American at heart, for better or for worse. Eventually, I’ll probably spend half my time in Asia and the other half back in the U.S.

JRT: How do you spend your free time?

KS: There are so many fascinating, beautiful, wild places within just an hour or two of Singapore. So we’ve spent holidays floating down the Mekong River in northern Thailand and Laos, snorkeling in the Maldives, bird-watching in Borneo, running on the beach in Bali. At home I garden on my apartment balcony and when I’m tired of work I read, read, read. The particular bureaucratic and cultural challenges of Singapore have motivated me to search for inspiration in the lives of accomplished Americans. Fellows like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Lyndon Johnson, Joseph Kennedy. From them I’ve learned that even if you have the passion, the drive and the resources to build your dream, it’s never a cakewalk. In fact, if you’re not careful, it can kill you unless you pace yourself and pay attention to your limits!

JRT: Are any of your three daughters pursuing science?

KS: Nope. I think I inoculated them against doing anything professionally in science or engineering. I gave them enough science at the dinner table and on family vacations for them to decide the humanities were more their cup of tea. Kristen is an actress in New York. Carrie is an artist in Miami. And Caitlin runs a nonprofit organization for local musicians in Bellingham, Wash. I’m proud that their mother and I inculcated in them a passion for life, because that’s what drives them now. At 63, I’m grateful that I’m still excited about what I’m doing. I suppose that the best way to stay feeling young is to love what you do. I’ve been quite fortunate in that regard.

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