How to Advance Earth Science

Collaborating with students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty members at Caltech is as rewarding for professor of geophysics Victor Tsai as it was when he was an undergrad.

As a Caltech undergraduate, Tsai (BS ’04) embraced opportunities to learn from scholars at all levels. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Caltech, Tsai went to attain a PhD at Harvard, followed by postdoctoral appointments at Harvard and at the U.S. Geological Survey. Since returning to Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS) in 2011, he has been gratified to discover that Caltech’s collaborative culture is as strong as ever.

Following are three tips from this alumnus/faculty member on how to spark new lines of inquiry with others.

1. Take regular coffee breaks.

“GPS’s regularly scheduled informal coffee hours make it easy to connect with people outside of your group.” Tsai says. Strong collaborations and published papers can result from agenda-free meetings.

As an example, he recounts a conversation he had in 2014 with Andy Thompson, Caltech professor of environmental science and engineering, and Andrew Stewart, then a postdoctoral scholar whose primary focus was oceanography. Chatting about glacier flow led them to take a closer look at previous studies of ice sheet dynamics and the mathematics of friction at the bed of an ice sheet.

The three scholars began to pursue this line of inquiry with support from the Stanback Discovery Fund for Global Environmental Science, a discretionary fund created through an endowed gift to Caltech from Foster and Coco Stanback. They also applied for and received funding from the President’s and Director’s Fund, a program jointly administered by Caltech and JPL that is earmarked for innovative partnerships.

In 2015, Tsai, Thompson, and Stewart published a study that challenged prevailing climate models for predicting ice loss in Antarctica. Later, another graduate student contributed to the research, and today a postdoc in Tsai’s group continues to improve projections for how changes in temperature and precipitation will affect ice sheets.

“A lot of great research begins when you talk with someone who is approaching a problem from a completely different angle.”
- Victor Tsai

2. Surround yourself with people who believe in you.

Recently, Tsai embarked on a new project with Michael Lamb, Caltech professor of geology, to learn about Earth’s erosion by using sensor tools in novel ways. “He has expertise in the mechanics of geomorphic events,” Tsai says, “and I am more familiar with seismic techniques for measuring things about landslides, debris flows, and sediment transport.”

Their work, which one day may help inform methods for mitigating debris flows and flood hazards, now has support from the National Science Foundation. “But,” Tsai explains, “before we could seek NSF funding, we first had to prove that our research was worthwhile—which we were able to do.”

Tsai and Lamb were able to demonstrate the potential of their new approach thanks to an internal grant from Caltech’s Terrestrial Hazard Observation and Reporting Center, which was established with a gift from Foster and Coco Stanback to support both GPS and the Division of Engineering and Applied Science.

Across the Institute, donors to Caltech have created flexible endowments that can be allocated at the discretion of university leadership to advance researchers’ best ideas. This type of support has been essential—as it was for Tsai and Lamb—in bringing many projects to the proof-of-concept stage that leads to substantial investment in the form of federal awards.

“At Caltech, if you have an idea and a couple of people agree that it’s a good one, you can pursue it,” Tsai says, “even when all you have to start out with is just the idea.”

3. Don’t compartmentalize yourself—or others.

Like many professors at Caltech, Tsai’s research pursuits are varied and prolific. His interests include but are not limited to earthquakes, glaciers, seismic imaging techniques, solid/fluid interactions, melting processes, earth structure, mantle convection, and planetary formation/processes.

Caltech’s culture inspires faculty to explore a breadth of research topics, to reach across disciplinary boundaries, even to reinvent themselves over the course of their careers. Similarly, Caltech encourages students and postdoctoral scholars to follow their academic passions—thereby extending not only the depth, but also the scope of inquiry at Caltech.

“At many institutions, a postdoc typically has one main adviser, but at Caltech a lot of collaborations are formed organically,” Tsai explains. “Currently, I have three grad students plus two ‘halves’—students I share with other faculty advisers. I also have two postdocs plus half of another postdoc. Scholars help bring research groups together when they work with multiple advisers. I appreciate their perspectives and learn a lot from them.”

Tsai’s research continues to be broadened and enriched by the company he keeps—and Caltech’s commitment to supporting unexpected and creative collaborations.


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