One Step Ahead

Before disaster strikes, geologist Debbie Weiser ’08 uses science and technology to help government leaders and decision-makers prepare for the worst

Few people can pin down the exact moment when they decided what to do with their life. For geologist Debbie Weiser ’08, the earth literally moved. Weiser was 8 years old and living in Redmond, Wash. “It was 10 o’clock at night, I was supposed to be in bed, and I was listening to the Mariners game on TV downstairs while simultaneously reading a book,” she recalls. “All of a sudden I feel this roller coaster happening. I knew what it was immediately, and I jumped up and got in the doorway.”

When the earthquake ended, her dad asked, “Debbie, are you OK?” “I was like, ‘That was amazing, can we do it again?’” she says.

From then on, Weiser was hooked on seismology. Whenever she had to do a school project, she would relate it to quakes somehow—Japan, tsunamis, the ring of fire. In junior high, she took a geophysics class for 12-year-olds at the University of Washington called “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” “It was awesome. I still have a printout from one of the seismograms from Mount St. Helens,” she says.

But Weiser had to wait for college to dive as deeply into earthquakes as she wanted to. When she fell asleep in her first geology class as Oxy, she had a moment of doubt. “Then I took a class with Scott Bogue on plate tectonics, and it was so fascinating, and it was so exciting to finally feel a more deliberate academic connection to my interest,” says Weiser, who completed her doctoral studies in geology at UCLA in 2016.

After a decade with the U.S. Geological Survey—first as an intern, and subsequently as a geologist—Weiser joined 2-year-old tech startup One Concern last July as a customer success engineer. The Palo Alto-based company offers a digital platform to facilitate emergency preparedness and response, pulling geological and structural data from a variety of public and private sources and using artificial intelligence to predict the impact of an earthquake in a particular area, down to individual city blocks and buildings.

“What we do is help equip our clients to be more prepared for inevitable natural disasters,” says Weiser, who researches disaster mitigation and response for One Concern out of an office in West L.A. “Before an earthquake, we can simulate different earthquakes and prepare them for what is likely to occur in specific scenarios. After an earthquake, we can provide them with maps to show the damage in their region. The AI can help them make better decisions about what to do in the face of a disaster.”

Clients include the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have a 60 percent and a 72 percent chance, respectively, of a Northridge-sized quake (6.7 magnitude) in the next 30 years, Weiser says. “A lot of the people we’re working with now are small governments,” she adds. “We want to help with their emergency operation centers, be working with the forefront of decision-makers in communities that are at risk, to give them technology so they are able to make better decisions.”

Weiser went to Mexico City after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck the area on Sept. 19, 2017, for example, to collect data “in order to strengthen our international algorithm. We wanted to better understand why some buildings were damaged and some weren’t. You can correlate that with ground movement as measured by ground sensors. We can get a damage profile of the earthquake.

“It was devastating to see the damage from that and where people had lost their lives,” adds Weiser, who with her team evaluated close to 1,000 structures in the quake’s aftermath. “It was a sobering reinforcement of why I do the work I do—to help people avoid situations like that.”

She also traveled to Japan after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake occurred near the city of Kamaishi on Dec. 7, 2012. “It’s exciting when a big earthquake occurs, when you study them,” she says. “But usually when you get data, it’s not good for people. Often you’re dealing with a situation where something has gone wrong. You’re getting data to help save lives in the future.”

When she was looking at colleges, Weiser first narrowed her search to West Coast schools with geology majors, then visited eight campuses. “When I set foot on the Oxy campus, it felt like home,” she says. “There was just a stronger feeling of passion and purpose than the other places I visited. I felt like I was going to have the potential to make a bigger impact in my college experience at Oxy, and Oxy was going to have a bigger impact on me.”

“I remember Debbie coming down to visit as a high school senior, and someone brought her up to the geology department and I showed her around the lab,” says geology professor Bogue. “That’s happened maybe twice in my thirtysomething years as a professor. When she showed up the following year as a student, we knew she was a live one.”

As a resident adviser in Stewart-Cleland, Wylie, and Rangeview halls, “I loved planning programs,” Weiser says. “It was so much fun getting to expose people to Los Angeles and the resources that are on campus.” She also met her future husband, Corey Abbott ’08, at Oxy: With her family on hand, he proposed to her in the Cooler on November 19—some 11½ years after their first date in 2006. “We saw Mission: Impossible III at Paseo Colorado, and he took me to dinner at Rubio’s,” she recalls (a date they reprised when Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation came out in 2015).

Graduate school wasn’t something she considered, she says, until geology department chair Margi Rusmore “encouraged us to think about next steps: Apply, then you can make the decision about whether you want to go or not.” Weiser opted to go to grad school to continue her study of natural disasters and hazards.

Another influential moment was when U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones came to Occidental and gave a talk to a select group of students, including Weiser. “She was talking about the connection between natural disasters and our society and how we can use science to better prepare for what are inevitable disasters,” Weiser recalls. “I thought ‘Wow, this is what I want to do with my life.’”

Weiser approached Jones afterward and asked if she needed a summer intern. “She gave me a job, as it turned out,” she says. Following her internship, Weiser ended up working with Jones at the USGS for 10 years, creating and managing preparedness and risk-reduction programs both during and after Oxy and grad school at UCLA.

“That allowed me to do a lot of applied work and not only study earthquakes,” she says, including helping to found the annual Great ShakeOut earthquake-preparedness drill in 2008. “It was going to be a one-time thing,” Weiser recalls. “Now it is a worldwide program with more than 21 million people participating every October 19.”

That experience marked another turning point for Weiser, who realized that disaster preparedness and mitigating damage and loss of life in disasters, particularly earthquakes, was her true passion.

“The goal is to get people as a community talking about preparing for disasters,” she says. “If you build that memory into your body of what to do in the event of an earthquake, then that takes over when it happens. The idea behind ShakeOut is getting people practicing what to do in an earthquake and thinking about what they need to do after. Do I have enough food and water? Do I have a flashlight? Do I have a way of making contact with loved ones? Just thinking through that whole process is really important.”

Having traveled from China to Chile to Oklahoma to research and develop strategies to improve safety in natural disasters, what is Weiser’s assessment of Los Angeles’ readiness for a major quake? “If you talk to the average Angeleno on the street, they probably don’t think about earthquakes all that often,” she says. “They’re kind of cavalier about it. I’m a big believer in the fact that if you get prepared for an earthquake, you get prepared for a lot of other things too, such as other kinds of natural disasters. … Is L.A. ready? No. Is it working to be more ready? Yes.”

Although Weiser doesn’t think earthquakes will ever be predictable, she notes that early-warning systems pick up underground waves once an earthquake has started, estimate a magnitude, and send that notification to other sensors that have not yet experienced shaking. While a 30-second warning might not seem like much, with ­automated implementation it is long enough for trains to stop, elevator doors to open, hospitals to switch to emergency power, for kids to get under desks, for fire station doors to open and the trucks to move out, and even to send out earthquake warnings to cellphones.

Several countries, including Japan and Mexico, already have earthquake early-warning systems, Weiser notes, and while a similar system is in beta-testing mode in the United States, the current proposed budget from the White House would cut the approximately $10 million a year to continue funding the project. “All of the western United States and Canada has faults close by, so it would be extremely beneficial all up and down the West Coast,” she says.

While figuring out risk assessments is an interesting puzzle for Weiser, “looking at the human side of things” is what she loves the most about her job. “If all scientists ever do is write papers and publish them in scientific journals, it’s great for science but it’s not helpful for society,” she says. “I’m grateful to be a communicator, to spread the gospel of science to help make communities safer.”

Photo by Marc Campos.