A Geophysics Legend Retires

Paul Stoffa
Paul Stoffa

Paul Stoffa, professor and Shell Distinguished Chair in Geophysics, has retired after 30 years of service to the University of Texas at Austin.

As a leader of geophysical research for 40 years, he has inspired colleagues, fellow geophysicists, and a long succession of graduate students, including over 50 PhDs. He has published over 100 research articles in peer-reviewed journals; those co-authored by a student often have the student’s name first.

His geophysical research began at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, and continued at Gulf Research and Development, before his appointment in 1983 to his pres­ent position at UT Austin. He was director of the university’s Institute for Geophysics from 1994 to 2008 and a member of the Steering Committee charged with forming the Jackson School of Geosciences. During this time, he was actively involved in the Ocean Drilling Program and served as chairman of its Board of Governors.

“Paul has a wonderful imagination and is able to create new methods to acquire and process geophysical data,” said Anton Ziokolwski, professor at the University of Edinburgh. “He has developed major acquisition and processing techniques in exploration geophysics that have made a huge contribu­tion to our understanding of how to investigate the Earth’s interior.”

At Lamont-Doherty, he developed a new technique for processing multichannel seismic reflection data that was eventually adopted by industry. He and his colleagues also improved the process of seismic data collection, allowing them to image deep crustal structure and the deep continental margin. In 1989, Stoffa edited the groundbreaking book Tau-p: A Plane Wave Approach to the Analysis of Seismic Data.

At UT Austin, Stoffa and Mrinal Sen, professor and Jackson Chair in Applied Seismology, introduced genetic algorithms and very fast simulated annealing to geophysics and in 1995 published Global Optimization Methods in Geophysical Inver­sion. The second edition was published in 2013.

Build­ing on this experience, as director of the Institute, Paul started a climate research program which used a Bayesian approach to estimate the uncertainties of climate models. In the late 1990s, the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation contacted Stoffa to ask whether the Institute had any climate projects that they could fund.

“It was clear to Paul that we didn’t do it, but we could be good at it,” said Cliff Frohlich, associate director and senior research scientist at the Institute. “It was also clear that universities of the first class should do that and he was in the vanguard of making it happen.”

Many of his colleagues at the Institute credit Stoffa with the clout and persistence that ultimately led to the establishment of a permanent home on a University of Texas campus in 2007 after many years in Galveston and at off-campus sites in Austin. The financial gifts of John Jackson and others cemented the construction of the new building.

Stoffa also won praise for his ability to teach and mentor graduate students, conduct advanced research, and be an effective administrator.

“He was devoted to his students,” said Eleanor Picard, former assistant to Stoffa. “They all just loved him.”

“He was a scientist with real ability and an administrator with skill,” said Jamie Austin, senior research scientist at the Institute. “Yet he never lost sight of his work as a faculty member. It takes a smart man to cover all those bases. He did that extremely well and for a long time.”

Stoffa also balanced the needs of the university with the larger academic research community. In 2003, he was asked by the National Science Foundation to build the management infrastructure for a new, international deep sea drilling program. Stoffa, with help from Austin, worked for two years to create IODP Management International, Inc. Now after several years of operation, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) has racked up an impressive list of research cruises throughout Earth’s oceans.

In 2011, he received the Career Researcher Award from the Institute and in 2013, he was awarded Honorary Membership in the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.