April 22, 2022
Holly Eissler Given's career has run the gamut of fields—academia, government, industry, and non-profit—all stemming from her expertise in marine geology and seismology, and the many ways knowledge of these fields is in demand for applications ranging from national security to technical project management.
After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois, Given started graduate school at Caltech's Seismology Laboratory, where Hiroo Kanamori advised her thesis work on earthquake modeling and volcano seismicity. Subsequently, Given worked at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she became director of the International Deployment of Accelerometers network of seismic stations. This work led to her close involvement in seismology and nuclear weapons testing verification, during and after the Cold War, and in 1997 Given became a senior technical officer for the International Monitoring System Division of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna, Austria. After an appointment at Science Applications International Corporation, Given was named director of the U.S. Science Support Program at the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, a consortium organization that serves to coordinate the programs of individual U.S. oceanographic programs.
Given is gratified to see all of the advances that have been made at Caltech in equity and inclusivity since her time as a graduate student, and she reflects on the ways the Seismo Lab shaped her approach to science, and for her career in administrative and policy leadership.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Friday, April 22, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Holly Given. Holly, great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
HOLLY GIVEN: You're welcome, David. I look forward to our discussion.
ZIERLER: To start, would you tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?
GIVEN: I did retire in November 2020, and I retired from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is part of UCSD. I was Director of the Science Support Office for the International Ocean Discovery Program. This is the longstanding research program that drills into the ocean floor to recover geological samples to tell you the history of the Earth and other things about how the planet works.
ZIERLER: As the timing suggests, perhaps, was the pandemic related to the decision to retire at that point?
GIVEN: Yes, and no. I had been planning to retire for some time. I had reached my goals financially, and I just got remarried in March 2020. I really was now in a time to look to the next chapter of life. But the pandemic did help because one of the things I loved about this job is that there was a lot of travel. I loved getting together with the community. And suddenly, all the meetings are on Zoom, it's 7 in the morning to accommodate people from overseas, and I just said, "I think it might be time." Also, I had started painting a few years prior to this, and I wanted to explore a new life with my new husband and painting.
ZIERLER: What I'm seeing in the background, is that some of the product of your work?
GIVEN: These are a couple of mine, yeah. They're both in progress. I haven't finished them.
ZIERLER: Oh, they're beautiful. That's wonderful.
ZIERLER: Is this a newly found talent? Or you've always been interested in painting?
GIVEN: It's kind of an interesting story. I started painting as a child because I had a very bad childhood stutter, and my mother took me to some specialists, one of whom was psychologist because they weren't sure about me mentally, and he said, "No, your daughter's very intelligent. Maybe this will resolve, but she seems to calm down and stop stuttering when she's drawing, so you might want to put her into art classes and see what happens." And my mother has always said that as soon as I started in the painting class, I stopped stuttering, so who knows?
ZIERLER: Some general questions about the Scripps Institution. First of all, were your key roles and responsibilities there?
GIVEN: I was principal investigator on a support office for a large research program. In order to run something like IODP, there are a lot of logistics, as you can imagine. There are oceangoing drilling platforms, with customized research teams based on the topic of the expedition. We also did our own proposal review. We had a science plan, investigators wrote proposals against the science themes to get time on the drilling platforms, and we facilitated the review panels, and so on. Also, helping coordinate consistent policy. IODP has over 20 member countries that pay to run the drilling platforms. There'd be different rules in different countries, but we had consistent policy within the program. That's the type of thing I have done throughout my career, which I'm sure we'll talk more about.
Oceanography and Seismology
ZIERLER: I've come to appreciate some of the key distinctions in geophysics between land and sea tectonics. More broadly, what role does the Scripps Institution play with its focus on oceanography?
GIVEN: It's interesting, Scripps has always had a solid earth component to it, even though it's an oceanographic institution. I actually started my career at Scripps as well as ended it, and I did a bunch of other stuff in the middle. I came as a post-doc after I finished at the Seismo Lab to work on a project to install seismic stations around the Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan in 1987. The department at Scripps is Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. For example, Don Helmberger, who was a professor at Caltech when I was at the Lab, I believe his doctorate was from IGPP here at Scripps. I believe he worked with Freeman Gilbert, who worked on free oscillations, which is what all seismograms are made up of, really, the normal modes of oscillation of the solid body of the Earth. A lot of that work was done at Scripps, even though it's an oceanographic institution, because of IGPP. Walter Munk, who was a huge icon at Scripps, had been an undergraduate at Caltech. Walter just passed away in 2019. He was born in Vienna in 1917, and his family sent him out of the country to get away from the impending war. So there are some interesting ties. It's interesting because a lot of plate tectonics work was also done here at Scripps, mapping of the bathymetry and magnetic anomalies on the ocean floor. Scripps had a huge role in the plate tectonics revolution. Someone at Caltech once told me that Caltech had made a conscious decision to keep away from marine geophysics and concentrate more on geochemistry, which was developing into a very important field.
ZIERLER: Beyond the personal connections between Scripps and the Seismo Lab, at the institutional level, were there collaborations between the two laboratories?
GIVEN: I wouldn't say there were strong collaborations, at least at the time when I was at Caltech. You would think maybe there would've been more with the Southern California faults and the growing seismic networks. They weren't competing or anything, but I don't think there were things yet like the Southern California Earthquake Center or things that officially would bring the institutions together.
ZIERLER: When you finished your PhD, and you went to Scripps, if you can imagine a continuum of going into a faculty position, becoming a seismologist at Stanford or something like that, or going into private industry and working for an oil company, where would you place Scripps in terms of the industry-academia divide?
GIVEN: At the time I came to Scripps, it was very academically focused. I have always been an anomaly, I think, compared to others that you'll interview because I have never really been a faculty member. I did have an academic appointment the first time I was at Scripps for ten years, and I've been a PI, but not really on research proposals, rather on large science coordination efforts that support the work of other people. I just want to get that out there, that I don't have what is the more typical profile of a Caltech Ph.D. When I hired onto Scripps, it was specifically to work on a project to do field work in the Soviet Union, which was something I more or less stumbled into, not knowing what I was going to do when I left. But that project set the path for the whole rest of my career, which has been a lot of fun.
ZIERLER: We'll get to your time at the Seismo Lab, but your focus and field work in the Soviet Union, was that related at all to what you were doing at Caltech?
GIVEN: It actually wasn't, which is really weird. My undergraduate degree from University of Illinois is in physics, and when I decided to go to grad school at Caltech instead of accept a job with Shell Oil in New Orleans, it was for a couple reasons. I had always felt this mystique about Caltech, although more from the physics perspective. I had been accepted as an undergraduate at Caltech in 1975, but my parents said, "No, it's too far, it's too expensive." I had always wanted to live on the West Coast and, after my college experience, I knew I wanted to do field work. The physics grad students at Illinois spent Saturdays in the sub-basement, running experiments on machines. And I said, "No, I want to work outdoors." My last year in college, I took a lot of geophysics courses; I didn't really even know what geophysics was but I imagined it would involve working outdoors in interesting parts of the world. So, I applied to grad schools on the West Coast, and after I visited and met the faculty at the Seismo Lab, I just was hooked. I had also been accepted at Stanford, where Bob Geller had recently joined the faculty after his thesis at Caltech; Bob was recruiting me pretty hard. When I visited the Seismo Lab I thought, "OK, if I go to Stanford, I can work with the guy who was working with Hiroo Kanamori. Why don't I just go to Caltech and work with him myself?"
ZIERLER: I'm curious, in 1986, when you start at Scripps, this is just the time when Mikhail Gorbachev was starting to open up the Soviet Union. Was that relevant at all? Did that provide opportunities that might otherwise have not been available?
GIVEN: That's what my post-doc project was all about. Gorbachev desperately wanted a test ban moratorium with the United States at a time when the Reagan Administration was saying, "No, it's counter to our national security interests." Gorbachev and his science advisor, Evgeni Velikhov, tried to engage the US government, and it was just not the right time. There's actually a very good article from 2015 in Seismological Research Letters (doi: 10.1785/0220140183) where you can read about the history of the project. Velikhov was also the president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, so we had that…
GIVEN: Kind of. We were working with Soviet military, we had watchers, and I'm not sure if they liked what we were doing, but it was an official cooperation with the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The American partner was an august environmental advocacy organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC. They were looking for a group of seismologists who knew about equipment and how to monitor explosions, and that project eventually came to Scripps.
ZIERLER: Was there any coordination with the Department of State and all of the arms control negotiations that were happening at that point?
GIVEN: Not really. In fact, they were told, "Don't touch this project." We had one science colleague from Livermore who got permission to come along with us on one deployment. And of course, the American scientists had connections with the DOD and DOE groups that funded research in nuclear test monitoring. When we came back with the data, which was public, they were very interested in it.
ZIERLER: How did your area of expertise slot into what Scripps was doing in the Soviet Union?
GIVEN: It's funny because it didn't really. I had studied large earthquakes and seismic sources in volcanic regions. I was just kind of a practical, smart person who knew how to get things done. When I first showed up, I wasn't even supposed to go to the Soviet Union; Soviet scientists were meant to come over here in a reciprocal arrangement to set up equipment around the Nevada test site, and I was supposed to facilitate their visit. The scientist I worked with, Jon Berger, just needed a deputy to understand the big picture and help him manage the project. Jon put me in charge of arranging the equipment shipment to the Soviet Union, and I learned all about the instrumentation and coded it by what field site it was going to go to. I loved it because when I went to Caltech, I had wanted to get out in the field and work with equipment, but at that time, the Lab wasn't doing much in instrumentation. In the 1980s when seismology was going digital we were getting our data from prototype global digital stations that would later grow into the IRIS Global Seismographic Network, rather than gathering data ourselves. So I really hadn't seen many seismometers during my graduate career, and then all of a sudden, I'm installing them in the Soviet Union. I just was lucky to hire onto this really cool project.
ZIERLER: Was there a playbook to work from? In other words, at the Seismo Lab or more generally, were there seismologists and geophysicists working specifically in the field of nuclear explosions and detections?
GIVEN: Sure, that was a lot of what Don Helmberger and David Harkrider did. They had funding from the DOD to estimate the size of a nuclear device based on usually the body waves and the time release of the energy of the explosion. But again, it wasn't going to the test site and doing things in the near field. It was working with far-field data. I did not do that kind of work in grad school. I kind of knew about it, but I learned a lot of what I needed to know about underground nuclear testing just on the job. One of the main motivations for this project was that the attenuation of seismic waves is very different around the Nevada test site than around the Kazakh test site. Nevada's in a tectonic area, the rocks are all ground up from faulting and movement. But in Kazakhstan, it's the interior of a craton. It would be like the difference in sound when you strike a cheap wine glass or a fine crystal wine glass. The seismic waves travel further and with more clarity in the more competent rock.
Those who didn't want a test ban with the Soviets had one perspective. They said, "We think the Soviets are probably cheating on the agreed threshold of not testing above 150 kilotons." That camp was using the same attenuation factor for both test sites whereas another camp said, "That's ridiculous because it's a completely different type of geology." Lynn Sykes and Paul Richards, not people from the Lab, were some of the big names who emphasized that the difference in Q was not being taken into account. This was one of the big things we were trying to find out with this project. In order to test that, we detonated a small calibration explosion of conventional explosives in Nevada, where the Soviets had their three seismic stations, and in Kazakhstan, where we had our three seismic stations, same source, same equipment, same distance from the stations, to compare the signals. NRDC arranged for a group of Congressmen and their aides to come out to our recording trailer in Kazakhstan and watch the explosion be recorded.
We knew the travel time for the signal from the explosion to arrive, and we'd practiced ahead of time, saying, "OK, the explosion's been set off, and the waves are maybe halfway here." And it was decided that I would be the one telling the story. [Laugh] So the cameras are on me, and all the Congressmen are standing around, when, all of a sudden, 15 seconds too early, the needle on the drum starts to move. And I realized right away that this wasn't the signal of the explosion, which would've been much more high frequency; this was what we call a teleseism, an earthquake from far away. So I said, "Wait a minute. Oh wow, there's an earthquake coming from somewhere else. This isn't the explosion."
And then, a few seconds later, the needle started to go faster, which was the higher-frequency signal arriving from the explosion not very far away. And these Congressmen were like, "Oh my God, this woman's a genius. She can tell the difference between an earthquake and an explosion just by looking." [Laugh] It was just so bizarre that this happened because they saw in real time the difference between an earthquake and explosion. But in this case it wasn't because the sources were different, it's because one of the sources was very far away. It was an earthquake in New Zealand, so the Earth had filtered out the higher frequencies, and the wave path was coming through a different part of the interior of the planet.
Kazakhstan and Nuclear Verification
ZIERLER: What was the day-to-day like? Was it exclusively field work? Was there a home base in Moscow, and you would go out from there routinely?
GIVEN: We weren't in Moscow at all, we were in Kazakhstan, and we weren't even in the capital of Kazakhstan. We were stationed at a vacation resort for the coal miners' union. There was a lot of curiosity because this was a time when there weren't many Americans in that part of the Soviet Union. It was quite nice. We had our own wing, we were well taken care of. It was really exciting.
ZIERLER: What was the reporting structure? Who was the audience for this research?
GIVEN: Well, NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, was lobbying for a test ban. And if you remember, this was around the time of a book on nuclear winter by Jonathan Schell, and the fear was that nuclear war would wipe out life on Earth, and that limiting testing would slow weapons development and make nuclear war less likely. The project's goal was to disprove the belief that you couldn't reliably monitor compliance with a nuclear test ban. As I'm sure we'll talk about, later I went to work for the real Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. When people there talk about the beginnings of the treaty and the work leading up to signature, the NRDC project is always mentioned.
ZIERLER: Now, did you remain with Soviet nuclear issues, or I should say Russian nuclear issues, after the Cold War ended?
GIVEN: Yes, and no. What happened afterwards, and this is really interesting, because Scripps IGPP did have a global seismic research network called Project IDA, International Deployment of Accelerometers, initially designed to study normal modes of the Earth, also named IDA because this was the name of the wife of Cecil Green, a philanthropist to geophysics, who gave Scripps money to buy the equipment. Scripps used to get money directly from NSF to operate the IDA stations, but when IRIS started the Global Seismographic Network, IDA was folded into IRIS, with the NSF money now coming as a sub-award through IRIS. The same man I worked with in the Soviet Union, Jon Berger, was also PI on that sub-award to manage the IRIS-IDA stations. About the time when we really got going in the Soviet Union, the Soviet military pressured Gorbachev to resume testing. The view was that they couldn't keep a unilateral moratorium up indefinitely or they would get behind, so if the Americans weren't going to join, they would have to resume testing. So nuclear tests started again at Kazakhstan, and when that happened, we had to shut down our stations. Eventually an agreement was made that we could keep operating stations in the Soviet Union if we moved them 1,000 kilometers away from the test site; in other words, no near-field recordings.
Jon proposed to the Soviet scientists that we move the NRDC stations to places that would then become permanent stations of the IRIS Global Seismographic Network. In reality we installed new equipment that met the specifications of the rest of the IRIS GSN, but the permission for the stations grew out of the NRDC project. In other words, the NRDC project and the relationships we had built there were the foot in the door for the first IRIS GSN stations into the Soviet Union.. About this time my post-doc was nearing its end, and I didn't know what I was going to do. Then, Jon asked me if I wanted to take over the day-to-day management of IDA. He remained the PI, but I was hired into a permanent academic job as the executive director of IDA, which was Scripps's subset of the IRIS GSN.
ZIERLER: I'm curious, this is a question more for the political scientists and the historians, but from your vantage point, what was the political effect of this research in DC? In other words, initially, the State Department wanted you to stay far away from this, but ultimately, how did it influence the arms control negotiations of the late 1980s?
GIVEN: I don't know that I'm capable of answering that because I don't really know a lot of what was going on. For years, there was a group in Geneva under the auspices of the Conference on Disarmament, which I believe is part of the UN.. Ralph Alewine, also a Seismo Lab alumni, ran a program at DARPA that funded nuclear test verification research. Ralph was very prominent in this group, called the Group of Scientific Experts or GSE, which helped develop a prototype treaty monitoring structure. SAIC was very involved, they developed a lot of the data format and data handling under contract to DARPA based on real-time data transmission from remote monitoring stations. In fact, one of the first applications of ARPANET, which led to the Internet, was bringing real-time seismic data from monitoring arrays in Norway, to a data center in Rosslyn, Virginia as part of the GSE framework. Countries that already had nuclear monitoring capabilities participated in the Group of Scientific Experts and ran a series of exercises where they would exchange data, and they would have exercises to screen events, and so on. What I'm trying to say is that this whole system that the GSE set up, once the treaty was signed, was adopted as the operational system of the treaty monitoring organization in Vienna: what the software would be, what the data center would look like, etc. And this came out of earlier research led largely by the United States through DARPA. But I'm sure it was exciting back then that western scientists were bringing digital seismic data out of the USSR. In a way it gave confidence that monitoring stations might eventually be allowed in.
ZIERLER: At some point, did you spend most of your time back in California at Scripps? Or were you always doing field work, always out and about traveling?
GIVEN: No, I did spend most of my time at Scripps in my beautiful ocean view office. My then-husband, Jeff Given, and I bought a house in La Jolla, the one I'm sitting in right now. We had two daughters. Those were really, really, really busy but wonderful times. I would go on a major trip maybe once a month. At that time, the IDA network, as part of the IRIS GSN, was expanding into new locations, or we were upgrading existing stations that had been part of the WWSSN, the analog network. UCSD and the USGS were the two providers of the IRIS GSN, if you will. We got together, staked out the globe, and decided who would do which stations. I went to Australia, Fiji, Iceland, the Azores, Uganda and other cool places to scout stations, working from my base here in La Jolla. It was a very exciting time.
ZIERLER: And did you remain engaged in nuclear issues and national security issues more generally?
GIVEN: Not really. I was interested in them. I could certainly talk about our project. I might've gotten a little bit of DARPA funding to look at ambient noise and detectability. But I was always kind of an outsider to that world who just happened to have been on this one project that was foundational. After the NRDC project ended, my main focus was expanding the IDA network. We provide, I think, a third of the IRIS GSN out of La Jolla.
ZIERLER: And with all of the travel, all of the international collaborations, what was the connecting point with you in terms of the kind of research that you were conducting and the international partners that you needed to make it happen?
GIVEN: Well, the job was to provide the global seismographic network that all scientists use. We needed to have a fairly uniform coverage of the globe, so if there was someplace, say, in Africa where you didn't have a station, you'd have to make a pitch to the local organization about why this was a good thing for them. I wasn't really doing research of my own at this point. I did have a few publications, but they were more about the arrays and the stations we were building rather than what was learned about the Earth through the data.
ZIERLER: In building this international network, what were some of both the technical and political challenges?
GIVEN: The IRIS GSN had the backing of every Earth scientist in the country, and all seismologists know that this is an important data source for knowledge about earthquakes and Earth structure. That part was nice, to work on a well-funded project. It was near the beginning of studies that depended on real-time data retrieval, so the techniques for bringing the data back in real time were not already worked out like they are today. It was different in the 90s than it is now, obviously. Politically, it wasn't too fraught. Technical challenges depended on what kind of a country you're working in, if you could get a reliable operator, if the power's going to stay on, and things like that. Does the needed infrastructure and technical support exist in a remote place. But usually, the local partners were pretty interested. We built stations on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Ascension Island, for example. I always preferred to go into places where there's an existing infrastructure, the local power company, for example, or some sort of authority you could work with. Although, in Iceland, we did build the GSN station on a farmer's field. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: In building this international network, what were some of the key science objectives? What was the field of geophysics and seismology hoping to achieve in creating this network?
GIVEN: The two main areas of study with a global seismographic network are earthquakes and seismic sources, and then interior structure of the Earth. Within that very broad brush are pretty much all the scientific questions that are studied by seismology.
ZIERLER: During this time, are you staying active in the literature, are you attending conferences, are you doing the kinds of things you would've done had you pursued that professorial path?
GIVEN: No, not really. I was actually far more interested in seeing new parts of the world, providing data for other people, and lifting up their research than writing anything myself. In fact, it got me in trouble at IGPP, because I had a 50% appointment as an academic administrator and a 50% appointment as an assistant research geophysicist, but I wasn't publishing anything significant because I was spending so much time on administration. Compared to the network, working on a narrow area of geophysics just wasn't that interesting to me. And that's what I meant when we started our talk and I said my career has maybe been a bit different.
ZIERLER: Now, if we could fast-forward to the present and look retrospectively at the legacy of creating this network, how has it moved the field forward? What are some of the key answers that have been resolved or at least raised anew?
GIVEN: You'd almost have to talk to somebody else about that because I feel out of touch with the topics of today. Even when I would go to conferences at the end, slow earthquakes, the hum of the Earth, these are things that were discovered or happened after I stopped staying current in seismological topics.
ZIERLER: Just so I understand, is this the network? Are there competing or overlapping networks? How does that come together?
GIVEN: No, this is pretty much THE network. If you're doing global seismology, the IRIS GSN is the main network.
ZIERLER: Is it complete? I'm sure there's always more to put in, but where would you put it in terms of close to 100% in terms of what people are looking for?
GIVEN: I think the original design goal was to have a station every ten degrees on the Earth's surface. The place where it's not complete is in the ocean basins. This was always a dream, to get ocean-bottom borehole seismometers built and deployed that would uniformly cover the Earth, not just on the landmasses or on oceanic islands, which are not very good locations for seismic stations because they're noisy. And this is really interesting to me because this is where the two programs I worked on, building seismic networks and then the ocean drilling program, could come together in a really cool science goal, if you used the NSF drillship to drill and case boreholes that then you would deploy a permanent ocean-floor borehole seismometer in, and that would officially become part of the IRIS GSN. That hasn't happened. It's mostly money, and it's also the drillship was more or less controlled by this other science community of marine geology and geophysics, which is a different scientific tribe and a different division within NSF. And as I said, getting time on the drillship was proposal-driven, and any proposal would have to be evaluated against the science plan of IODP. To get time on that drillship, to drill and case the holes, then put in a bore-hole seismometer that would become an IRIS GSN station isn't really a scientific problem, but more of an organizational problem. But it would be really important if someone could finally do that.
ZIERLER: Are you optimistic that the will, the resources, and technology is there to complete this?
GIVEN: The technology, certainly. The resources could be. With the will, it's almost an organizational problem within NSF because Ocean Sciences is funding the drillship, and earth sciences is funding the IRIS GSN. As you probably know from others who worked at NSF, and I was even there briefly in my career, there are factions within NSF, and they often compete with each other for budget resources. But it should and could happen. But what I've noticed is that to do things that are big takes a lot of time. Also, if your metrics of success are your publications, or you're working on the tenure clock, you can't really afford to spend a lot of your time breaking down these silos or working on things that you might not see come to fruition. Science is a business, after all.
ZIERLER: That's right. Tell me about the circumstances of you joining the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, or as it's known, CTBTO.
GIVEN: That was such an exciting time for me. It was the year I turned 40, and I had been at Scripps for ten years, traveling around, building new stations. My kids were little, and I was just ready for something else. Especially when I would go to some of the more difficult countries to work in, I would try to get a contact at the US embassy or else call the desk officer at the State Department and say, "I'm coming, I work for University of California." In countries where the embassies weren't very busy, they sometimes would talk to me, and I'd end up talking to these really smart, bright people who were Foreign Service officers. And I thought, " I would like to have a job like that." Have you heard the name John Filson yet?
GIVEN: John Filson is a wonderful man, he was sort of a father figure to me. He was at the USGS, and he had been seconded off to ACDA, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, during the negotiations for the CTBT. John and I were the main people who made the deal about which IRIS stations Scripps was going to do and which stations USGS was going to do. I called him up and said, "John, I'm meeting these fabulous people doing science support at US embassies. How do I get a job like that?" He said, "I don't know, but let me ask around." At that time I didn't even know about the Foreign Service Exam, which I took many years later. After a couple months, John called me back and said, "I don't really know how you would get a science job in an embassy. But why don't you think about this thing that's being built in Vienna for the CTBT? They're going to need people who know how to build stations, and you certainly know how to do that. And they probably want to have technical women." I thought that sounded really cool. He said, "Call Ralph Alewine. He'll know what to do."
So I called Ralph, who I knew from having worked on the project in the Soviet Union, and I said, "I want to go work at this place in Vienna. What should I do? Should I fly out to DC and talk to you about this?" Ralph was enthusiastic, and after a while he said "OK, I'll call the Executive Secretary and recommend that he hire you." [Laugh] And it just happened like that. I remember the afternoon that I got the call from the head of personnel asking me to fill out paperwork, I was just so thrilled. I was so excited, I couldn't focus, so I left work early and went to Nordstrom, where I bought this gorgeous Jones New York suit in my favorite fuchsia color for my new work wardrobe. [Laugh] And when I got to Vienna, it was great. Nothing existed yet. I was the second person in the seismic section there, and I was the highest-ranking American in my technical division. Really, it was a clean slate. My division director was this extremely charismatic, smart man, a seismologist from Mexico named Gerardo Suarez. Everyone adored him. Gerardo told me, "When you move over here, bring your field boots, bring your notebooks in your air shipment, and hit the ground running. We have to get to work and start building the stations." The very first agreements for the IMS - International Monitoring System - stations were based on the Memoranda of Understanding that we used at Scripps to build IRIS stations. It was super exciting.
Seismology and the End of the Cold War
ZIERLER: Now, obviously, the Cold War is over, the War on Terror has not yet begun. Where are nuclear weapons in terms of world politics from your vantage point?
GIVEN: It was really an interesting time. We had been working in the Soviet Union, but then the Soviet Union broke up. Something called the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission was developing polices on science cooperation and defense conversion, sort of a "swords into plowshares" thing. I believe this was about the time it was agreed to remove the nuclear weapons from Ukraine and get them under control of the Russian central authority; Soviet weapons had been staged in Ukraine and probably in Kazakhstan, and no one wanted these new countries with unproven governance to suddenly become nuclear powers. It was an exciting time because Clinton had signed the test ban treaty, and everyone thought it was going to be ratified and enter into force quickly. It still, by the way, has not entered into force. It was signed in 1996, but it stipulates that 44 nations that had nuclear capability had to ratify as a condition for entry into force. The United States has never ratified, and, supposedly because of that, China has not ratified, and I believe the others are Israel, Egypt, North Korea, India, and Pakistan. But at the time I was there, it was very hopeful. People thought the treaty would enter into force within a few years, and therefore, we had to have this monitoring system ready, so we were really green-lighted to build these stations as fast as we could.
ZIERLER: Who did you report to, and what were some of the duties you had at that point?
GIVEN: We were under the UN umbrella, kind of like the IAEA is. The nations that had signed the treaty are called the member states – they are members of the treaty organization - and ultimately, that's who we reported to. The technical staff is hired from citizens of those nations, and there's a lot of trading about how many staff slots are from what nations, and it's sort of proportional to which countries are paying in the most. The US was paying in the most, followed by Japan, then Germany. But the organization worked hard to have employees from all the member countries. That was sort of interesting because, of course, most of the technical expertise resided disproportionally in places like Germany, France, the US, UK, Canada, Norway, Japan, and so on. My immediate boss was a lovely man, a Chilean seismologist, named Sergio Barrientos, who had a PhD from UC Santa Cruz. Sergio was the chief of the seismic section. He wasn't there yet when I arrived. I reported to Sergio but before he came, I reported to Gerardo Suarez who I think did his PhD at Columbia (Lamont).
ZIERLER: What were some of the challenges? Obviously, in an international organization, you have to get people together. What were some of the big debates and disagreements that made the process difficult?
GIVEN: Oh wow. [Laugh] There were so many problems to solve. They weren't just technical problems. As the head of the organization liked to say, "We're doing technical work in a political environment." First of all, the UN bureaucracy is just mind-numbing. And then, there were a lot of rules set up to make sure - if I were going to set up a contract to build a seismic station, to make sure I wasn't giving it to my brother, or son-in-law, or something. Some rules seemed to exist on the assumption that you were going to try to cheat the system if there wasn't something keeping you from doing so, which as an American I found really insulting. But this is a cultural thing. I soon realized that there are cultures where, if you were lucky enough to get one of these well-paid UN jobs, there might be an expectation that you would help your village or your country. Even though I had worked internationally for years, I didn't quite get that concept until I became an international civil servant.
I finally got to where I was able to drop my American perspective and embrace the international organization perspective. But another challenge we that there was this preexisting structure of nuclear test monitoring that had been going on for decades, and we had to delicately segue from that. For example, within the US there is a group called AFTAC, Air Force Technical Applications Center, which is part of the US Air Force. The mandate had been given to them when tests were still atmospheric to detect and locate nuclear test explosions anywhere in the world. AFTAC had built monitoring arrays in places like Thailand, Canada, Spain, and Turkey. During the negotiations for the CTBT, these arrays were grandfathered into the International Monitoring System and became official treaty stations. It was really difficult because on one hand, the US Air Force was saying, "These are our stations," and on the other hand, we're like, "Well, these are now IMS stations, so you have to follow the IMS rules."
Everything had to be done under the legal framework of the CTBTO. I'll never forget the time when we were going to start work on a station upgrade that was one of these AFTAC installations, and when we were trying to explain to the CTBTO legal officer, who was from Iran, why Americans were involved at all. We said "These are actually US-funded stations, run by US Air Force personnel," and he's like, "Do you mean to tell me that there are US armed forces personnel on the grounds of the Treaty stations?" And I'm like, "Yeah. Yeah, that's right." [Laugh] So just going from this beautiful, "Oh, this is how it all works on paper," to then actually making it work that way was really hard. In many areas the negotiators left the details, as you say in physics, as an exercise to the reader. Another example, the procurement rules stated that you had to get three bids on everything, then there's a committee on contracts that evaluates the bids and decides who will be hired to do the work. But most of these preexisting arrays, say in Norway, they were operated by a Norwegian seismic entity that was funded by their government. It was their array. When we went out for bids on, "OK, we need to get this array upgraded," that entity, called NORSAR, put in a bid. And our procurement department said to us, "Where are the other bids?"
And we're like, "Well, it's THEIR array. We can't just hire somebody else to upgrade their array." So Gerardo and I had to figure out how to craft a special exception within in the procurement rules, and then he had to figure out how to make it palatable to the signatories. Because some formalists were saying, "Well, you seem to know these Norwegians. It's like they are your friends or something." So there was just a lot of disconnect between the technical people, who already knew how to work together, and this overprint of the official country structure. That was challenging. The technical work was hard enough, without having to fight to be allowed to just do your job, with all these eyes on you. The last thing I'll say, in many cases, these same people we were hiring to build the stations, when the technical delegations of the member nations would come together in the conference room in the UN building in Vienna to evaluate how the secretariat was doing, the guys who would sit there and evaluate us were the same guys we were hiring to do the work. It's like your bosses are your contractors, so we had to figure out that relationship. It was fascinating. It really was.
ZIERLER: Were you in Vienna on 9/11?
GIVEN: I was.
ZIERLER: What was it like?
GIVEN: It was horrible. The technical delegations were meeting that week, and my husband and I had invited some colleagues over for dinner. We had a big salmon thawing out in the sink at home. I got a call from one of them, or maybe he sent me an email from the conference room floor, saying, "Are you aware of the events happening in New York right now?" I tried to get on the New York Times website, and no websites were up. I called one of the other Americans on my floor, and I said, "Don, did something happen?" He goes, "Yeah, something is happening." And then, my daughter called. She was in 6th grade, and she was over at her girlfriend's. She said, "Mom, they attacked New York." And I'm like, "What's going on?"
Then, she said, "They hit Washington, too." Luciana Astiz, my best friend since 1980, was also working at CTBTO at this time. Luciana came in my office, closed the door, and told me the towers had fallen. She said, "They're gone. They're both just gone." And I just had to go home. I think she might've walked me down to the car. In all the time I was doing international work and working at Vienna, I felt, in a way, untouchable because I was an American. This was the first time I ever felt really vulnerable. It's hard to describe. That veneer of invincibility was gone.
I did go into work the next day. Luciana and I both wore black like we were in mourning. I was a zombie through the division meeting. At the end, Gerardo said to me, "Holly, can you stay a minute?" He had lived in New York, he went to Columbia, so it was personal for him. He said, "I'm so sorry. It's just so shocking." Everybody on our floor saying how shocked they were, asking if I had family in New York. Because it wasn't clear yet how many people had died. We thought maybe it was 10,000 dead. Nobody knew yet.
ZIERLER: When you left the organization in November '11, how did that change the work, and did that influence your decision to move on?
GIVEN: I had already made the decision, I think. And I have to say, I have second-guessed that decision my entire life, even up until now. My ex used to tell people, she cried every night for a year about leaving Vienna. It was a complicated time. I'm still not sure why I decided to leave. My husband's office was going to close down, and he made some joke about, "Oh, I'm going to move the computers to the basement of our house, and I'll work out of the basement." And I thought, "Jeff Given can't be working out of the basement." Also, I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable about my kids not knowing America. I was also getting a little fed up with the bureaucracy of the organization, and I thought the leadership was too political. My boss was about to put me in charge of the Russian stations which I knew would be hard. In retrospect, I probably should've just taken a three-month leave, and I would've been fine. But I had an offer somewhere else, and I just decided to go.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the work at SAIC. What were you doing there?
GIVEN: Well, this is interesting. I thought it was going to be the same type of work, and indeed, we were working on monitoring stations. SAIC had won a big award from AFTAC to upgrade their arrays. And a couple things about this. SAIC is where Jeff had worked for pretty much his whole career, so it was a known thing for us. When they got this big award from AFTAC, Jeff was in Florida working on the data center part of it, and the guy who was running the SAIC group there told him, "I need somebody just like Holly, somebody who knows how to build stations, somebody who knows about the Treaty." So it was just one of those things. It was kind of a time when I was getting anxious again and was just ready to make a move. My kids joke that when they tell people that they moved every three years as kids, people ask them, "Was your dad in the military?" They say, "No, my mom was just restless." [Laugh] We packed up and moved to Melbourne, Florida, which was really quite shocking compared to Vienna. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: And this is a government contractor organization.
GIVEN: Well, SAIC had a contract with AFTAC, which was part of the Air Force.
ZIERLER: It was primarily the Air Force that was the client for your work?
ZIERLER: And what was the nature of the work? What were you doing that the Air Force was wanting to support?
GIVEN: SAIC won the contract to upgrade their traditional monitoring seismic arrays, the ones they had in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, and elsewhere.
ZIERLER: And this was not as enjoyable?
GIVEN: No. I remember Ralph called me when he heard I was thinking of doing this, and he said, "Holly, if you take this job, no one will know what you're doing." And I'm like, "No, it'll be just like this job, but I'll be doing it in the US," and he said, "It's not going to be that way."
ZIERLER: What did Ralph know that you did not?
GIVEN: I think he knew what this organization, AFTAC, was like. Or just sort of what the whole military culture was like. Ralph knew the culture.
ZIERLER: Was this a situation where you were looking for your next opportunity pretty soon after you started?
GIVEN: Yeah, I would say so. My ex and I said pretty much right after we got there, "These are going to be our wilderness years." We had a beautiful house in a landscaped community where all the doctors and dentists lived. The kids had a good life. But there were tensions in the relationship with the customer before we arrived, and these soon became insurmountable. And then, the Iraq War happened. We were by Patrick Air Force Base, the so-called Space Coast of Florida. This was right after 9/11, so there was already all this uber patriotic stuff. I remember driving to the store behind a big Jeep with two bumper stickers; one of them said, "Nuke 'em til they glow, and use 'em for runway lights." And the other was something like, "I'll forgive Jane Fonda when hell freezes over" or something. I'm thinking, "Girl, you're not in Vienna anymore." [Laugh] It was a real culture shock. This is, by the way, when I took and passed the Foreign Service exam, went up to DC, passed the orals, and got put on the hire list for the Foreign Service. But by then I was 44, my husband had a medical condition, my kids were in school, my oldest about to go to high school. I thought, "I can't see starting from scratch at a hardship post somewhere. Maybe that ship has sailed." And about this time, I I was brought to DC to interview for a great job at NSF for the executive director of the National Science Board.
I didn't get that job, but when I told my old colleagues at Scripps about the interview, it's almost like I popped back up on their radar. One of my Scripps colleagues, John Orcutt, was working with this drilling program, IODP, and I got a call from the president of something called Joint Oceanographic Institutions in Washington DC, which was a nonprofit that was spun up by the main oceanographic institutions who were managing the ocean-drilling program – kind of like IRIS was managing the GSN for the seismological community. He said, " I'm looking for a program director for the science support function of the US part of the drilling program. Would you be interested? John Orcutt recommended you. Why don't you come up, and we'll talk about it?" After some discussions he decided to hire me. We moved up to McLean, Virginia, happy to see Florida in the rear view mirror. That's when I switched over to ocean drilling.
ZIERLER: When you get to the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, what opportunities did you have to reengage with the work that you had done previously at Scripps?
GIVEN: There was some overlap, but not a whole lot. But I did know some of the people. Scripps is also very siloed, so most of the people who were working on ocean drilling were sedimentologists and geochemists, not the geophysicists. But John Orcutt was one person, and I once again worked with the woman who was the lobbyist for Scripps at the time, who is now the assistant director. It felt good. I talked before about the borehole seismic stations in the ocean floor. That was always sort of an impetus of the drilling program, although it never was accomplished. But when I left that job in Florida, I really went away from building seismic stations and never got back to that, which is a little sad.
But I liked the work. It was very similar to Vienna in that there was this big international program funded by the science agencies of about 20 different countries. Both in Vienna and in this new job, I loved figuring out how to overcome obstacles and facilitate the scientific work. I've often said that, in a science support function, if we're doing our job well, you don't even know we're there; things just happen as they are supposed to happen. But if we don't do our job well, the cracks start to show up. I loved the work, it was very social, there were interesting, smart, brilliant people, there was cool science.
Measuring the History of Planet Earth
ZIERLER: What was the mission? Who was the audience?
GIVEN: It's a basic research program about the history of the Earth, and how the Earth system works. Almost everything we know about the Earth's climate history older than a few hundred thousand years is from ocean sediments. You can use ice cores only until the last time there was no surface ice on the planet. Ocean sediments, on the other hand, stay on the ocean floor until they're subducted. The oldest ocean sediments are maybe 200-million years old. You'd be amazed what can be inferred from studying ocean sediments. For example, the relative abundance of oxygen isotopes is a proxy for bulk ocean chemistry and how that changed over geologic time. But it wasn't just sediments.
There were all sorts of interesting research questions that I didn't even know about. I never learned any of this at Caltech or at any point in my education. Some people working in the program liked to call it ocean-drilling science, and I always fought against that term because ocean drilling isn't a subset of science; rather, you're using ocean drilling as a tool to address science questions in multiple fields. What was the chemistry of the ancient atmosphere? You can also infer that from the chemistry of the ocean inferred from the sediments. Even ancient earthquakes, volcanic activity, how the magnetic field has varied over time. A lot of this information is trapped in samples that are buried on the ocean floor or in the upper layer of oceanic crust.
ZIERLER: How did you get to the NSF? Specifically, I assume it was an exciting time with the Obama Administration and the elevation of science in the national agenda at that point.
GIVEN: I'm afraid my career moves were never as lofty as any of these reasons. [Laugh] Consortium for Ocean Leadership (previously called Joint Oceanographic Institutions) was managing another project called the Ocean Observatories Initiative The Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) was this grand vision developed by marine geophysicists who had gotten together, kind of like what land geophysicists did with Earthscope, in support of a grand vision of putting permanent observing infrastructure in the oceans, a lot of it on the ocean floor, some in the water column. The idea was to get a lot of money, and build this transformational infrastructure.
NSF said, "Great, here's some talking money. Go away and think about this more." A little project office was spun up at JOI, and my boss asked me if I would move over to that project. And I was kind of interested, because it was another big build; the planning number was $330 million of infrastructure investment. Cabled fiber-optic arrays that would have seismometers and other sensors along the ocean floor, then building some other cool stuff like moored profilers that sampled the length of the water column; new permanent observing buoys; a dense array of autonomous underwater vehicles that could study coastal areas then be redeployed in a different location. Basically, it was all the big infrastructure projects that various people in the ocean sciences community wanted to build, and they knitted all of these components together into a coherent observing platform in the ocean.
And I think, actually, in the early planning stages, these permanent ocean floor seismic stations that I've mentioned a few times were even in the plan. Anyway, my boss asked me to become the director of the OOI project office. I came in when it had just passed its conceptual design review, and I got it through its preliminary design review in December 2007. But those two years were just hell. I was anxious and scared the whole time because wide support for the project was never really there. When I first was in the job, I went over and met the NSF program managers in Ocean Sciences, and almost every one of them was very skeptical about this initiative.
ZIERLER: Why? What was their issue?
GIVEN: That it would eat up all the money. It would take money from their core programs. They didn't want to be saddled with paying for this big infrastructure build that some of their PIs didn't support. Again, the reference for this was Earthscope, which had been a success in the earth sciences, and before that, the IRIS Global Seismographic Network, where the whole community got involved because the instrumentation need was very clear. Except in the case of the OOI they never were all involved, and some never believed in it at all. I came back to my boss and said, "I think we've got a problem. The program directors don't really support this."
They wanted to tell me what they didn't like about the OOI, but they wouldn't give us any direction about it should be instead. They were like, "Oh, no, the community wants this. We're not directing anything." I finally got some written comments from the NSF program directors on the design concept of the OOI. And my boss told me, "Congratulations, you have gotten more than anybody has been able to get out of them yet." Anyway, this was the beginning of paring down these great dreams so that we could have a design that would eventually pass final design review, which it did. And it was about this time that the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed under Obama, in 2009. Once the ARRA came in, a lot of the tension eased up because there was now more money, and people were not quite so hostile. But in order to pass fiscal scrutiny during final design review, we had to pare down the design, and this was extremely difficult, because different factions of the community supported different parts of the design, and nobody wanted to see "their piece" eliminated. The reality was that it was never possible to build the all the things initially envisioned for $330M, but no one wanted to come to terms with that.
We also had to change the advisory structure, because we were about to bid out three large contracts for the providers of the OOI. One was going to build the cyber infrastructure, one was going to build something called the cabled array off the Pacific Northwest, and one was going to build these ocean buoys and coastal arrays. But almost everyone in the advisory structure planned to be part of a bidding group for one of these contracts. We went to the JOI board of directors and presented why this was a conflict of interest and they agreed that we should restructure the advisory boards. But that created some bad faith, because the community felt they had lost control of the direction of the project, and it took a long time to recover from that.
About this time, JOI was merging with a sister organization called CORE, Consortium for Ocean Research and Education to form the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. As a consequence of this merger, my wonderful boss Steve Bohlen left for a position at Livermore. Steve and I had had a fabulous working relationship, but my new boss, a former director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was far more hands-off. I'd been at JOI for four years, and between the loss of Steve and the acrimony over the OOI design changes, I felt that things were coming to an end for me there, and I started looking. About this time, Jim Whitcomb, who I had overlapped with briefly at the Seismo Lab, who was a section head in earth sciences at NSF, asked me to have lunch. He said, "We're hiring a new Earthscope director. I can't tell you we'll give you the job, but if you apply, I'm pretty sure you'll get it."
Virginia or Vienna
ZIERLER: Was this a dream job? Or was this just an exit maneuver for you?
GIVEN: A little bit of both. It would've been a cool job. It was running Earthscope, which I think both IRIS and UNAVCO were funded under, so it would've been running a big piece of the instrumentation show at NSF. But I had already applied for this other job at NSF that was program director of something called Integrative Graduate Research and Education Traineeships, IGERT. IGERT was a really cool program if you ever get a chance to look at it as a historian. It was run out of the Division of Graduate Education, which is part of the Education and Human Resources directorate at NSF, where they do research about how education and human resources work in science. I didn't know anybody there; they just responded to my application, called me out of the blue. I was at the Denver Airport, coming back from some meeting, and I see this call from area code 703, and I'm like, "Huh, maybe that's NSF." I picked it up, and it was a woman asking me to interview for this position I applied for.
When I walked out of the interview, I felt exactly like when I got the call sitting in my IGGP office to go to Vienna in 1996. It just felt like the weight of the world fell off of me. I called Jim and said, "I'm going to take this other job," he said, "No, no, Holly, it won't be as cool. First of all, it's a rotator job, not a permanent job. You won't like that directorate. You really should come to earth sciences, we need you." In retrospect Jim was right, just like Ralph had been right about going to AFTAC, but at the time I was so burned out, I was just ready for a complete unknown, a whole new community. IGERT funded programs in all the NSF areas. They funded stuff in nanotechnology, biology, cyber-infrastructure. For example, we were funding research into OLED technology, and I thought, "Wow, this is so cool. Someday you could have a TV screen that rolls up." You can buy OLED TVs at Costco now. So I took that job, but I found out very quickly that EHR was different that then rest of NSF, and not as science-focused.
I worked with a fabulous woman named Carol Van Hartesveldt, but shortly after I got there, she was pulled off IGERT to become the acting division director, and I was left on my own with a science assistant to run this huge program. Instead of really learning about the things we were funding, I was spending my days clicking through screens to accept people's interim reports and monitor their budgets. Just this almost menial sort of clerical work. And I'd really never worked for the government before; it was very bureaucratic. In the meantime, the kids were growing up, and we'd always had this dream to go back to Vienna. Jeff had applied for a position at the CTBTO; eventually he was interviewed, and got the offer. So then, we had to decide what to do. I I was kind of ready to quit my job and just figure out what's next. We had these long discussions about, " If you're going to be a soccer mom, would you rather do it in McLean, Virginia or in Vienna?" Finally I said, "I'm ready to go back to Vienna." So that's what we did.
ZIERLER: It was only a matter of time to get back to Vienna, it seems like.
GIVEN: Right, yeah.
ZIERLER: That must've been great for you.
GIVEN: At first. But then not really, because it was the first time in my life I didn't have a job. I had no professional identity.
ZIERLER: What about consulting? Were you already sticking your toe in the water a little bit?
GIVEN: Well, I did briefly do some consulting for the CTBTO; they asked me to organize a big meeting. I set up internal and external advisory boards and we established the science themes and the framework for the conference. But about that time, my father had a serious heart attack and needed open-heart surgery. So I got it to a place of completion, and handed off the planning to somebody else. I did a good job; it still happens every other year under the same name. I said, "My father's had a heart attack. I have to go back and take care of him." That was kind of a graceful way to ease out, because at about that time, issues were emerging in the marriage. And maybe that was accelerated by my not having a professional identity to go get lost in so I wouldn't have to confront it.
ZIERLER: Was IODP a bit of a savior at this point for you?
GIVEN: Absolutely. I moved back into the house in La Jolla that we still owned and had been renting out for 15 years. I moved back without a job at 54, not knowing what I was going to do. At one point, I almost was hired into a job at Scripps, in their Sea Grant office. Their first choice turned them down, the second person was about to turn them down, and they called me and said, "If he turns us down, we're going to hire you." I thought, "Oh my God, I'm going to get hired back at Scripps, it's like a dream." But he didn't turn them down. But that put me back in touch with my old friends at Scripps and I realized that the people I had known there at the beginning of my career were now running the place. One friend was the interim director. She said, "Do you want to be a visiting scientist? We can't pay you, but we can give you an office," so that happened. And then, Steve Bohlen called to give me a pep talk and said, "I think Kiyoshi Suyehiro is thinking of hiring you."
So yes, back in IODP, where I had been earlier in my career, and yes, it was a savior for me. I came back first as a consultant for Kiyoshi. The IODP central management office had been in DC for ten years, and for the second phase, it moved to Tokyo. Kiyoshi, whose father was a scientist and a diplomat, had gone to junior high in the US, so he was quite comfortable with Americans and familiar with American management culture. And I had worked with his father, Shigeji Suyehiro, at CTBTO. Kiyoshi once showed me a picture of his father's father, also a scientist, with Beno Gutenberg at Caltech. His grandfather had been the first Japanese scientist to visit the Seismo Lab. Anyway, Kiyoshi eventually hired me as his deputy in Tokyo, while I was living in La Jolla. NSF had essentially told him that they weren't going to renew the management contract so we all expected the management structure to be re-competed in three years. I think Kiyoshi hired me to help steer the ship into the port and keep things going during this period. I did the annual report and oversaw some of the sub-awards. Basically I was just kind of a steady hand. I was going back and forth from La Jolla to Tokyo. I'd go for a couple weeks at a time.
It was exciting, it was fun. I would stay with a friend, a French woman I'd worked with at CTBTO, who was now the science attaché for the embassy of France. She had this fabulous diplomatic penthouse apartment in the middle of Tokyo, it was wonderful. But we knew that the end of the contract was approaching. I remember I was up at the AGU one year, and I'm in a planning meeting for how IODP was going to be managed in its next phase. I was sitting next to this senior scientist from Woods Hole, and the NSF guy is saying, "Well, we're not going to have this big, heavy management structure. Instead, we're going to have a lightweight Science Support Office located in the US, and they're going to do the proposal review and maybe organize the meetings." And the Woods Hole scientist turned to me and said, "Who would want to do that? There's no science in that."
But at the same time I was feeling a rising wave of excitement, because I was thinking, "I've just found my next job!" [Laugh] I was very excited about it. I went back to Scripps, where I was still a visiting scientist, and said, "Hey, guys, I think we can bring the IODP Science Support Office to Scripps." They were interested. So I wrote the proposal, and we won, and I spent the final 7 years of my career as the PI on that award.
ZIERLER: Well, we talked about Scripps at the beginning of our talk, now let's go all the way back to your education. First of all, at Illinois, did you have an interest, or were you exposed at all to geophysics and seismology as an undergraduate?
GIVEN: When people ask me, "Why did you become a geophysicist?" the short answer is, "To get out of Illinois."
ZIERLER: [Laugh] There are lots of fields to go into, though, of course.
GIVEN: We talked about this at the beginning, I kind of knew I wasn't ready to go out and work in the commercial or corporate world. I always had this image of myself – and I don't know why, because I don't think I'm naturally inclined to be a scientist – as a person who is a disciple in the world of knowledge. I love knowledge, and I love being around wise people, and I love the natural world. I chose physics as a major because I also wanted something that would be practical, I was looking to get out of the suburbs, and most of all, as a female, I didn't want to depend on somebody else for support. My best friend from high school was going to major in art, but she already knew she was going to marry her boyfriend. I wanted something I could make a living at by myself and that would allow me to live steeped in knowledge and the natural world. I was really inspired by a friend from Utah, who I traveled with a little bit in college. His father was a physicist who was on sabbatical at Berkeley, so I went to California and Utah with him and saw real topography for the first time. And I just loved the outdoor domain and I thought, "How can I make this my work environment?" It was like, Hmm, geology, physics, aha, geophysics! I thought it would be a fascinating way to have a cool career working outdoors. Which was ironic because when I went to Caltech, I just worked in the computer room at the Seismo Lab; I didn't work outdoors at all until my post-doc project. It was another stroke of luck, or an intuitive decision, or blind faith, or whatever. It just worked out. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Who put Caltech or specifically the Seismo Lab on your radar?
GIVEN: I somehow always knew about it, maybe from reading the personal histories of scientists. I was accepted at Caltech when I was looking for college. I loved the stars, which is how I got interested in science. We'd go to Michigan every year on vacation with family friends, and one of the other kids knew all the constellations. I was just hooked, and I wanted to know all the constellations too. My parents helped me buy a telescope. Somehow, I found out about this thing called the Astro-Science Workshop, which Northwestern University was putting on for high school students interested in astronomy, and every Saturday, my dear father drove me downtown to the Adler planetarium so I could go to these lectures. I just always loved science, and Caltech was the mecca. And it was in California, where I wanted to be. I applied everywhere on the West Coast, Stanford, UCLA, Caltech, Berkeley. I didn't know about Scripps, and when I went to Caltech, people said, "Why didn't you apply to Scripps? It's right on the beach!" I'd never heard of Scripps, and I was never really a beach person. I guess once I got accepted to Caltech, there was just no question because I had wanted to go there for college. I can't remember where I first heard of it, but it's like I always knew about it, and I just wanted to be part of it.
ZIERLER: And it was the Seismo Lab specifically? That was the first stop for you in graduate school?
GIVEN: Yeah, because that was geophysics. I didn't really even know much about Earthquakes, but I thought, "This is cool field." It just felt good. It was interesting. When I met Hiroo, I just thought he was wonderful.
ZIERLER: Did Hiroo end up being your advisor?
ZIERLER: What was the connection with Hiroo? Of all the people to work with, why him?
GIVEN: Well, he was just a pure scientist, and he was a nice man. We haven't really touched on this, but it was hard for me, as a woman, to be at Caltech at that time.
ZIERLER: Were there any other women in the graduate program?
GIVEN: When I arrived I believe six women had been in the graduate program at the Seismo Lab; I knew four of them.
ZIERLER: And it was difficult in what way? You just did not feel welcomed?
GIVEN: When I started at Caltech, there were between 300-400 people on the faculty, depending on how you counted. But there was only one tenured female professor, in English, and she had sued to get tenure. So there were no role models yet, and women scientists at Caltech were an oddity. Biology had only just hired Mary Kennedy and Barbara Wold as assistant professors. Anyway, to me it felt hostile, and I had never felt that way at University of Illinois, even though I was often the only woman, or one of very few women, in upper-level physics classes. So it was a surprise. But Illinois was a huge university, and there were a lot of women on campus. Even in the physics department we had one professor, Lorella Jones, whose doctorate was from Caltech – I'd love to hear her story! - and Rosalyn Yalow, who was an Illinois physics alumna, was being celebrated for recently winning the Nobel Prize. It wasn't a big deal at Illinois. But Caltech just didn't feel good, and I felt uncomfortably conspicuous where I just wanted to blend in. I'll tell you one story from when I was 22.
There was this one older man I noticed when I first came to campus who walked around a lot. He was kind of thin, had this crazy white hair, a deep tan, and often wore a crisp white shirt – almost like a uniform. Very distinctive looking. And when he would see me, he would do this very odd thing. He would stop in his tracks and just watch me go by with this kind of puzzled look. This happened several times, and it made me very uncomfortable. One time, I was walking with an older student from the Lab, and there's this man doing it again. I said, "Oh my God, there's that guy. He stops dead and stares at me, and it's so weird." And my friend said to me, "Um, Holly - that's Richard Feynman." And I'm like, "Oh my God, I don't want Richard Feynman staring at me, knowing who I am, or anything else! I just want to be a normal grad student like everybody else."
ZIERLER: Were there any faculty who were supportive, who were a shield for you at all?
GIVEN: Well mostly this topic was not actively addressed. But there was never any weirdness with Hiroo, so that felt supportive in its own way. There was a woman who had a research position called Karen McNally, she had come to the Seismo Lab from Berkeley, and she took me under her wing my first year. She advised me pretty strongly, "Be careful of this; watch out for that." Once she told me, "When they were talking about your file before you came, one of the professors said, 'Oh, I can't work with her, she's too beautiful.'"
ZIERLER: Not what you signed up for.
GIVEN: Yeah, there you go. It just somehow never occurred to me that there would be this aspect of things because I had not encountered them before. I think it was mostly the lack of a significant presence of women. Not really a Lab problem, the Lab was more or less OK, to first order. But the whole campus just felt off, which became an issue for me. For example, there was no women's locker room. So the solution was to let women use the visiting team locker room, which was this small, dark room with running urinals. We tried to get them to take the urinals out, but I guess the plumbing was too complicated or expensive, and they didn't understand why the urinals bothered us anyway. We tried to explain, "Because it's a symbol that we aren't quite"…
ZIERLER: Part of it.
GIVEN: Yeah. Anyway, that's all different now at Caltech. It's so much fun. I think the last couple years, the entering class was majority female.
ZIERLER: That's right. Well, it didn't happen by accident. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of women voicing their concerns that things needed to change.
GIVEN: Yeah, and I think it's kind of interesting that you didn't start seeing the women grads of the Seismo Lab going into academic and faculty positions until the group after us. I don't know if you've noticed that.
ZIERLER: I have, for sure.
GIVEN: And I think this is part of why. I don't know what the others will say, but yeah. And a number of us married other people from the Seismo Lab, and then you have to figure out careers in the same place for two geophysicists. Even Luciana, who I think was the one who really should have been a professor because she loves the science, and she loves people, and she loves teaching, but her career was limited by her family situation. I think it took the first crop of us just getting through until the next group of women, who then did succeed as professors.
ZIERLER: Back to the science, how did you develop your thesis?
GIVEN: Well, I knew I wanted to work with Hiroo. I knew I could work with him because of these other things we talked about, and I thought big earthquakes were really interesting. There was this sort of perceived pecking order of the prestige of your research roughly going from working on the deep structure of the Earth and implications for planetary formation, to modeling the upper mantle, to analyzing earthquake sources, to studying seismicity patterns and finally earthquake prediction, which was largely considered sort of woo-woo.
ZIERLER: It still is. [Laugh]
GIVEN: Seriously. [Laugh] You know how it is at the Seismo Lab. You have to come up with three propositions to pass your orals. I'm not sure I even remember what my three were. I was just kind of casting around for something. I told Hiroo, "I want to work with you," and he came in one day and said, "Well, I think I found a project with you," because there was this really interesting earthquake in the Tonga-Kermadec Trench that, instead of a thrust fault, like most earthquakes are, it was a normal fault, which is a different stress regime, and it's probably because there's this topographic ridge there, so, "We should find out what this earthquake is." I modeled that earthquake working with Hiroo. And then, the next thing that happened, again, sort of a response to a natural event, there was an unusual earthquake right under Mauna Loa in Hawaii, and we talked about this at coffee break, and I thought, "This is really cool." It was a large earthquake and deep, and I was kind of curious about, "Does this mean magma's moving?"
I started looking in the literature about seismicity associated with volcanoes, which I found fascinating. And once again, we were limited by the availability of data because there weren't high-gain broadband seismic stations close enough to Hawaii to be able to see the details of these earthquakes. A lot of the stuff I worked on, you couldn't really solve the science questions because the stations just weren't good enough yet. If we had had the stations that I ended up building during the later part of my career, we could have resolved more about these phenomena. Hiroo worked on seismic sources that weren't classic earthquakes, like the explosion of Mount St. Helens, the seismic signature from its lateral blast. He later did a great study of the atmospheric oscillations set up by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Hiroo worked on cool stuff. There were many days I didn't think I was going to make it, so I told myself, "I'm just going to finish and figure the rest out later." I pretty much knew already I didn't want to have an academic career because I didn't really see the relevance of some of the more esoteric research topics. I just didn't want to spend my life thinking about them.
Breaking Paths at the Seismo Lab
ZIERLER: Well, we began our talk right after your PhD. We've come full circle. First, I'm sorry to hear that you had these troubles, and I hope you get some satisfaction that it's a whole lot better at Caltech now. There's a whole lot of work to do, but I hope that the stories you share are increasingly anomalous and even ancient-feeling.
GIVEN: Well, in the end, Caltech was wonderful for me. I couldn't have had my career if it weren't for Caltech. I just want to be clear about that. The climate, and we didn't use the word back then but that's exactly what it is, wasn't the fault of anybody at the Lab or any one person. It's just what the climate there was. A few years ago the National Academy of Sciences released a study on sexual harassment in science. There was a session dedicated to this study at the Fall AGU and I remember that I started crying during the presentation. I thought I was over all this. I started crying because I realized that the findings they were describing were things that I had lived and felt, but at the time I thought, "It was my fault. What's wrong with me?" But it really validated what it was like back then. I realized I've been walking around with a kind of PTSD. And I noticed that a lot of other people in the room were crying, too. [Laugh] But just the last thing about this. During one of the more recent AGUs I went to, Luciana and I were having dinner at this great vegan restaurant called Millennium. There were two younger women at the table next to us. In the pause of our conversation, we heard one of them say to the other, "Well, I think we should do the analysis at Caltech." And Luciana and I just looked at each other with this big happiness and Luciana whispered to me, "The next generation!" It was just a really cool moment.
ZIERLER: Let's end on a positive note. I wonder, in light of all that you accomplished, and because you emphasize that you were only able to accomplish what you did because of Caltech, what did you learn at Caltech, both in terms of approaching the science and working in a scientific community, that had served you so well for all that you did afterwards?
GIVEN: I think the biggest thing I learned at Caltech was that to succeed as a scientist requires a different and almost orthogonal skillset than to be a good student – or a good administrator, for that matter. And this is what I was, a good student. In college, I did really well because I knew what the laws of physics were, I learned them, I accepted them, I applied them to the tests and problem sets, and I succeeded by following the rules. I'm a rule follower. But you don't succeed at Caltech just by following the rules. To succeed at Caltech, you have to question the rules. You have to question all the laws of science. And this is something I either was afraid to do, or didn't know how to do, or wasn't good at doing. So I learned that about myself. I also learned that I do my best work in situations where I feel supported and part of a larger team, so that's what I tended to seek out, and perhaps why I had such a peripatetic career. The human dimension is very important to me. I also learned to spot who was a rule follower and who was rule challenger, and this served me well when I worked with all the different personalities on these large complex programs. And I learned how to deal with adversity, somehow. Caltech really made me tough.
ZIERLER: Despite itself, it made you tough.
GIVEN: I did face challenges and uncomfortable situations, as I described to you in these different job situations. But I knew I could do it because I went to Caltech – now my husband makes fun of me about this. He says "Why do you always tell people you went to Caltech? I don't tell people where I went to grad school."
ZIERLER: He just doesn't get it. It's OK. [Laugh]
GIVEN: Yeah, exactly.
ZIERLER: Holly, on that note, this has actually been a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation. I thought we were just going to talk about the Seismo Lab. I'm so happy we caught all of it. It's great perspective and insight that you've shared, so I'm just so happy we were able to do this. Thank you so much.
GIVEN: It was nice to talk to you.