Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

Ask a Scientist

December 13, 2017

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In this new blog series, we ask Energy Department researchers about their life as scientists working with energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Our aim is to inform readers about how scientific research is performed, learn from the people who produce our technological marvels, and to increase awareness of how this work impacts our nation’s energy needs. This is the third in a three-part series.

This interview is with Paul Allen Johnson, a geophysicist and a technical staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Physical Society.

How did you decide on a career in science? What inspired you and when?

I took a somewhat tortuous path.  I began as a music major, hoping ultimately to perform in a large orchestra—the National Symphony, Chicago or the New York Philharmonic.  I spent a lot of time in rehearsals and found them dull. I happened to take a Physical Geology class at one point because I was interested in how the Grand Canyon formed.  I fell in love with the topic and wanted to be like my professor.  So, I continued in music, but changed majors to Geology. 

I was still unsure what to do after achieving my undergrad. I worked various jobs including conducting research on both rock physics and seismology at Los Alamos National Laboratory. After working, and taking an extended trip around the world, I went to grad school to obtain my MS in Seismology and ultimately did my doctorate in geophysics and physical acoustics.

 

Ask a Scientist - Paul Allen Johnson
Johnson stands in front of an image of 'chains of force' obtained in experiments of earthquakes, using a technique that exploits 'photoelasticity.'
Ruth Bigio

2) What kind of research do you do? 

My work is focused in two general areas: 

(1) Nonlinear elastic behavior of Earth materials from the lab to tectonic scale. We are interested in how seismic waves can perturb the earth and place it into a metastable state for some period of time, and what that tells us about the materials. This work includes a lot of acoustic diagnostics including applying time reversal, a technique to focus sound at a small volume in space.

(2)  I also work quite a lot on fault processes, and how machine learning can help us acquire deeper information about fault processes from seismic waves.  We are expanding our work in machine learning to study other geophysical data streams. New breakthroughs may come from this approach.

 

My advice is, if you like to ask questions about our physical world and seek answers, science is a fabulous choice for a career. The tremendous rewards of the search and discovery are hard to imagine.

 

3) What are the biggest challenges you've encountered and how did you overcome them?

Sustaining funding to work on interesting and useful topics is very challenging. Other challenges include keeping up with the voluminous scientific literature.  Finally, over-commitment is a widespread issue for me and my colleagues. It is hard to say no to working on the many interesting problems out there.

4) Is there any advice you'd give a young student who's thinking about becoming a scientist?

It is a wonderful adventure.  And you have colleagues and potential collaborators spread across the planet.  In my case, I’ve had the possibility to work in other countries, and open my eyes to other cultures and ways of thinking.  It has been the most enriching part of my career. In short, my advice is, if you like to ask questions about our physical world and seek answers, science is a fabulous choice for a career. The tremendous rewards of the search and discovery are hard to imagine.