“Think carefully about what you want and what will make you happy…”


Alison Malcolm is a well-known geophysicist who is recognized for her work on full-waveform inversion, nonlinear imaging techniques and uncertainty quantification. She has served as assistant professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for six years and has been working as a Professor in the Earth Sciences Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) since 2014.

Alison has been the recipient of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) J. Clarence Karcher Award (2012), given in recognition of significant contributions to the science and technology of exploration geophysics by a young geophysicist of outstanding abilities, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) outstanding student paper award (2004) and the SEG award of merit for student paper competition (2003), among others. Alison is a well-published author and has made several dozen presentations on the research that she has carried out herself and with her students.

Upon being requested for an interview, Alison happily agreed, much to our delight. Following are excerpts from the interview.

Alison, let us begin by asking you about your educational qualifications and your work experience.

I did my undergraduate degree at UBC (University of British Columbia), where I was first introduced to geophysics both in class and via some work that I did in the field and in the office for Prof. Ron Clowes. Although I enjoyed that work, it was too geological for me, so I ended up doing my undergraduate honours thesis with Prof. Tad Ulrych. At his suggestion, I then did my PhD at the Colorado School of Mines in the Center for Wave Phenomena working with both Prof. Maarten de Hoop and Prof. John Scales. After that I did two postdocs, one in math (at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota) where I was fortunate to learn about medical imaging and work with Prof. Fernando Reitich, and the other in geophysics (at Utrecht University) with Prof. Jeannot Trampert. I was an Assistant Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for six years before starting my current position in 2014.

How did you think of pursuing geophysics as a career, and then going into teaching?

I first heard of geophysics at my university orientation where another student said they were majoring in that. I had always enjoyed math and physics, but geophysics seemed more closely related to a career. I don’t think I even knew what a PhD was at that point, and I was thinking more about what type of jobs I might be able to get with a BSc. After my first year as a student, I asked the physics co-op office if I could be part of the program while doing geophysics or some combination of physics and geophysics. The coordinator said yes, and told me to leave my name at the Earth Sciences main office in case anyone was looking for someone for summer work. I did that and Prof. Ron Clowes needed someone to help with field work deploying seismometers in Northern BC and the Yukon and he hired me to do it. This was great because it introduced me to a lot of geophysicists, and I really liked the vibe of kindness and enthusiastic learning that I got from that group. I was more interested in the mathematical and physics parts of geophysics, which is why I did my honours thesis on signal processing with Prof. Tad Ulrych. He was very encouraging and helped me decide to look at grad schools in the States and then get into several programs. I chose to go to Colorado because I liked the breadth of work done there and the people who did it. I think that my interest in teaching grew there, and in having the independence to do research. I don’t think I decided that I was definitely going to have an academic career though, until I got my current position. My time at MIT was excellent, I learned a lot, made great connections, and got to work on some fun projects with truly exceptional students. But it always felt a bit uncertain and perhaps temporary. It was also the time when I was starting my family, so how I was going to balance that with working was a constant source of introspection. Thus, I was still not sure I was going to stay in academia until I came to Memorial.

As a professor at MUN, what is your biggest challenge to get good students to work on advanced technology ideas?

I don’t know that I can identify a biggest challenge. I spend the most time thinking about how to equitably recruit good students who are truly interested in learning and research. I find it really challenging to say no to potentially qualified students and to choose which ones to work with. This is much easier with local students, who I already know in class, but is particularly challenging with international students. I also think there is nothing wrong with wanting a grad degree for the job opportunities it will bring, but I think if that is the only motivation then an MSc is a much better choice than a PhD for which the student really needs to have their own passion for research.

One of the topics that you have been working on with your students is full-waveform inversion (FWI) for land seismic and microseismic imaging. Please tell us about this work and its promise.

Although I have worked on microseismic imaging a lot in the past, I have not worked on it very much in the past several years. I do enjoy that problem though. With the added challenge of noisy data and unknown source properties, it makes FWI even more challenging than usual. I have done research on FWI, and recently I had two students who had field datasets to which they wanted to apply FWI. In one case it was an offshore dataset with quite sparse sampling compared to what we usually use for FWI, and the other was indeed a land dataset. These projects really gave me some practical insight into FWI and the challenges in applying it to field data.

Most of your research work is published in prestigious journals such as Geophysics, Geophysical Journal International, Journal of Computational Mathematics, Geophysical Research Letters, etc., and have a liberal dose of mathematics. Most geophysicists prefer to tow the geophysical line with minimal mathematics and more intuition, so that it is easy to follow. Can you tell us about your motivation to delve into geophysics with heavy mathematics?

First, I’m not sure that this statement is true. I think that there are many geophysicists who, like me, find the mathematics underlying geophysical problems to be interesting, beautiful, and intuitive. There are many kinds of intuition and for me the intuition that I trust the most comes from the math underlying our techniques. Although my first work was really with some complicated geometrical spaces, most of my work does not use a lot more than calculus with a healthy dose of numerical analysis. I think this is quite similar to most other geophysicists. Why do I work with the math? First and most simply because I like to. Second, and this I think comes strongly from Prof. Maarten de Hoop who was my PhD supervisor, is that it is important. You cannot expect to be able to construct a good image of the subsurface if you do not understand how waves interact with that subsurface. You cannot expect to simply use your intuition to derive an algorithm that will work. There are counterexamples to everything but I think that the best and most important contributions to any field come from understanding the underlying principles and not from intuitive guessing. You can guess where to look and what things might work, but if you can’t derive what you’re doing then I think it’s unlikely to work in a variety of situations. It might work once, and you might be able to publish it, but I don’t think you will get robust, broadly applicable methods that way.

Would you say that your research interests are in the development of new technology that enables exploration and production of hydrocarbons?

Alison with her daughters

Not really. I would say that my interests are in wave propagation and understanding how we can use the information in waves to better form images as well as understanding how waves interact with different types of structures. Most of my work certainly focusses on exploration seismic scales and, as a result, on problems that are relevant to the oil and gas industry.

What is your prioritized list of problems that you are working on with your students? I could also rephrase this question as: in the next five years where do you think you’ll be going?

I have worked on 4D seismic for a number of years now, partly because of its potential for CO2 sequestration monitoring. CO2 sequestration is growing in importance and interest because of the growing realization that it can play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change. As such this work is growing in at least two directions. The first is really a continuation of work we have been doing for the past several years on how to quantify the uncertainty in the images of subsurface changes.

The second is a more focussed study on the CO2 sequestration potential of NL. Both of those projects are going to grow and continue over the next few years.

The other research direction that I am continuing to work on is laboratory work on what happens when two waves interact with one another within a rock. These interactions are quite sensitive to both the microstructure of the rock and the fluids that might be present in those microstructures. As a result, I think that imaging of these nonlinear wave interactions can give complementary information to standard seismic imaging. I think that this project will also grow over the next few years, and hopefully we will be able to get to the point where we can develop these techniques into a real imaging method.

What is your impression about the important developments that people can expect in geosciences, something like 3D seismic adoption in the 1980s which later became routine?

This is a tough one! I think that obvious answer is machine learning, though I have to say I think that the difference between machine learning and inverse problems is a bit less than the two names indicate. I think that we’re going to see more automation and, as a result, faster processes from first data to final decision making. From a personal research perspective, I think that there will be more emphasis on quantifying what we actually know and what we don’t know, via uncertainty quantification. I think that as our compute power continues to grow, we are going to see both these topics becoming more mainstream.

These days there is a lot of talk on ‘Energy and the Environment’ with more awareness on the use of ‘fossil fuels’ and its harmful affects associated with climate change. In view of this what changes do you anticipate in the hydrocarbon industry and the relevant research that is carried out?

I think that we’re seeing a lot of this already. I have been thinking about and working on CO2 sequestration for close to 10 years, and this past year I’ve had more interest than ever before from students, companies and even the general public. I think that the oil and gas industry is the industry with the expertise to do this and ,as a result, the industry will move at least partly in that direction over the near-term. Longer term I think it is really hard to predict. I believe that there will always be a need to image the subsurface, and to understand its properties, but the industry is going to diversify beyond oil and gas into other forms of energy and this will change how seismic data are used significantly.

What are your aspirations for the future?

I am pretty happy as a professor, so I don’t have any career-changing aspirations. Also, from a research perspective I prefer working on many different problems so there is no big theory that I want to derive or understand to feel fulfilled. I want to keep advising dynamic and interesting students, working on relevant problems that also have some fundamental aspects to them, and having lots of fun along the way.

What is the trend on the number of students enrolling in geophysics in the last 5 years, and how does it compare with the previous 5 years? Any indication that students are moving to the more environmental areas?

Our numbers are down across the whole department, which includes the environmental parts of the department. In the previous 5 years our numbers were much higher. I think that it’s normal for there to be cycles that correspond with commodity prices. This dip felt a bit different and more profound, but at the same time we are getting some indications that our numbers are rising again. I don’t have any data to show whether our environmental numbers rose during the past five years or whether they’ve held steady. My general feeling is that they have held steady, but our energy and mining student numbers were down and they were a larger percentage.

How does MUN compare with universities such as Colorado, Stanford, Houston, etc., in geophysics, in terms of standard of education, fees, infrastructure, focus of research, or other yardsticks you may have in mind?

The biggest difference between Canadian and US schools is the breadth; Canadian schools tend to be more focussed and, as a result, students come out with more knowledge in their discipline. Our program here at MUN is quite geologically focussed, particularly in the first two years. I don’t have numbers on fees, but despite having raised tuition substantially in the past few years my impression is that MUN’s tuition is lower than most universities. We have the same infrastructure problems as many places, and similar equipment I would say. We do not have a DAS (Distributed Acoustic Sensing) system at this point, and we don’t have any research on acquisition techniques right now. We have an excellent core group of geophysicists, but fewer than places like Stanford, Colorado, or Houston. We are quite focussed on exploration, with a little bit of rock physics and environmental thrown in, but we have no whole-Earth geophysics at this time. To me the most important metric is if the students in the department are happy and if they can get jobs that they are happy with when they finish their degrees. I think that all the places you list, certainly including MUN, do reasonably well on that metric.

You have an impressive list of publications in peer-reviewed journals, are an advisor to several Ph.D. students, taught courses on more than a dozen topics, are the 2012 recipient of the SEG J. Clarence Karcher Award, and the list of your accomplishments goes on. How do you feel when you look back at all these?

I am pleased with my accomplishments, and appreciative of the opportunities I had as well as the people who I’ve had the chance to work with to achieve them. I think that it’s important to realize that no one does what they do alone and that all our accomplishments are the result of a combination of luck, skill, and perseverance.

What personal attributes helped or went against you to achieve the professional status you enjoy today?

I remember one of my grad school friends, I think Kasper van Wijk, saying that it didn’t particularly take brains to get a PhD, but it certainly took tenacity. I think that’s the key trait for research. You must be a bit stubborn and I’m sure my parents will attest that I’ve always had that. I also genuinely like to think and learn so I never have to force that. Also, I am always happy to chat with people about interesting problems or questions in science, or any field really. That said, I do tend to pull away from others and perhaps to not work hard enough to setup and maintain collaborations. This has worked against me particularly , I think, in developing collaborations with people outside whatever institution I am at.

Alison, let me ask you a philosophical question. In his essays, Francis Bacon, the famous English philosopher, and statesman had said ‘Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man’, and ‘If a man’s wit be wandering, let him study mathematics’. This seems to be very appropriate in your case, as you seem to be well versed in using mathematics in your research work, and you read, write, and present. Could you tell us about your take on this?

Hmm interesting, I haven’t heard that one before. I think that mathematics does help one to think clearly and that other kinds of reasoning follow from that type of thinking. I believe that one thing that really helps to make clear writing is to have the argument you want to make very clear in your head, so I think that working with math helps you refine your writing. I’m not sure that math is really going to help if your ‘wit is wandering’ though; maybe that is an old-fashioned way of saying someone is going a bit crazy. I don’t really see math helping with that particularly.

What are your other interests, apart from geophysics?

Alison fat biking in the woods near her home.

I really like being outside, particularly in the winter so I like to ski both downhill and cross-country, to snowshoe and, recently, even to fat bike. I have two school-age girls so keeping up with them keeps me busy and engaged with the world. I’ve recently been interested in mindfulness and neuroscience in a listening-to-podcasts sort of way.

Alison, tell us something about yourself that nobody else knows.

I guess that some people know this, but when I was a kid, I was into figure skating so there was a time when I could jump in the air and spin twice and sometimes even land on one foot!

What advice would you give young people who are just entering their profession? What type of jobs will they be getting?

My biggest advice is to think carefully about what you want and what will make you happy, and prioritize those things. For some people it might be the exact type or topic of work. For others it might be a place they want to live or the type of people or company they want to work with. You can’t expect everything to be the way you want it to be, so be prepared to sacrifice on other aspects. The other thing I think it’s important to tell new graduates is that it is really a hard time of life when you are deciding things like where to work and live as well as, often, deciding personal things like having a family. Like most things, this difficult time will almost certainly pass!

Alison, I thank you for sparing time for this interview and sharing your experiences. I wish you good luck with your work.

I enjoyed it. Thank you for the opportunity.