NAME: Rob Porritt
CURRENT TITLE: Research Science Associate
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Regional scale passive source seismic imaging.
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 12
EDUCATION: BS in geological engineering at Michigan Technological University (2007)
PhD in seismology at the University of California, Berkeley (2013)
NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern California (2013-2016)
Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Arizona (2016)
Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Texas, Austin (2017-2018)
TWITTER NAME: @robporritt
What’s your job like?
My job is a constant mix of field work, computer work, and discussions with other researchers. My field work involves deploying and maintaining broadband passive source seismometers. I am currently maintaining two ~20 station networks; one in the Mojave Desert and another in south eastern Texas. I don’t always enjoy the travel, but I do love the opportunities to see absolute beauty in the Mojave Desert wilderness and meeting rural Texans who are willing to let us use their land for earthquake monitoring. The computer work in the lab is a bit more challenging (usually) as the work is constantly tweaking software and rebalancing parameters. When I’m in my office and not working on my own research, one of the joys of being in a research institute at a major university is that I have frequent opportunities to talk with some really brilliant geologists.
What’s a typical day like?
I live in Austin, TX, so first thing is to grab some breakfast tacos and coffee. After that, the typical day varies quite a bit depending on whether I’m doing fieldwork or office work. If doing fieldwork, I endeavor to get started as early as possible. My usual work is a lot of driving (or in the case of the Mojave, hiking), so getting the miles behind us as early as possible maximizes the hours of daylight we have to work with. The actual work once I arrive at the station is fairly straightforward – if installing, I’ll dig a hole and then put together the solar panel and battery-powered recording station. If I’m doing just a service run, that is mostly just making sure everything is ok and downloading the data. For an office day, I’ll usually just spend hours pouring through the software, seeing where things need to be changed and running different tests to see how variations in my parameters result in variations in my model.
What immediately jumps to mind is my love-hate relationship with fieldwork. Like many geoscientists, it is not uncommon that I will take off from my daily routine for days to weeks at a time to get out and do research in the field. This is an amazing opportunity to travel, explore new lands, try local food, see rocks, hike places that have been untouched by human hands in hundreds of years, and/or meet honest, helpful folks. These can be real, life-affirming experiences that fill me with profound joy when I indulge in the memories. But the day-to-day realities present challenges which I’ll address later. On my non-fieldwork day-to-day, I get a certain joy out of a code compiling without errors or warnings and discussing recent published papers with other geoscientists at a local pub.
Here is where I get to address the hate part of the love-hate relationship with fieldwork. Logistics. So much logistics. It’s not so much that logistics is difficult, it’s more that it is just so many elements that need to be rigorously considered when you work through a checklist of tasks. When I was an undergrad to grad student these checklists were prepared by more experienced researchers than myself. Now I find myself that experienced researcher and this forces me to use these past experiences and my knowledge of the equipment to develop the checklist, which is far less of a straightforward task. Once we’re in the field, something most people don’t think about is just the drudgery of the day to day in terms of just the transit time it takes to get from site to site. For my work in the Mojave, it takes 1 hour to drive from the hotel to the seismic line. For my work in Indonesia, we’d take flights to hop around the islands, and that means it could take several hours to get to the site after waking up at 5am for the 6am flight. Finally, perhaps the biggest challenge is how it affects my mental state. Studies have shown that multi-tasking makes you less efficient at each task than if you were to uni-task. Therefore when I’m out in the field, I’m unable to think about my non-field research. I’m really only able to focus on the logistics of the work and making sure we get the data. When I get back to my office, then it takes a while to get back into the headspace of my regular research.
What’s your advice to students?
If you’re thinking about Earth Science, go for it. The thing I love about Earth Science is how it gives real, physical examples to anything you learn in any other science. This most strongly clicked to me after taking Physics 2, which focused on electricity and magnetism and Applied Geophysics. Let’s face it, fieldwork field physics can be confusing and hard to visualize. But EM methods in geophysics, which build on this fundamental force, give you a way of fieldwork how an EM field interacts with a rock body and the result can be measured. Suddenly, this amorphous vector field symbolized as B actually means something you can hold in your hand or measure with a simple device.