Seismologist Lucy Jones changed the way we prepare for earthquakes

Lucy Jones is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at

If you live in California, or any of the world's earthquake-prone regions, you probably know the work of Lucy Jones.

The renowned seismologist has been the voice of calm in a quake's wake for nearly four decades, taking to television broadcasts and social media to dispel the uncertainty of disaster with straightforward science.

In 2008, she led the team that developed the Great ShakeOut, an earthquake preparedness drill that teaches participants to "Drop, Cover and Hold On." Last year, more than 57 million people in 74 countries across the world joined the now-annual exercise.

Before she retired from her 33-year U.S. Geological Survey career in 2016, Jones spent a year embedded in Los Angeles City Hall, guiding the development of a sweeping city plan to retrofit more than 15,000 buildings most vulnerable to collapse in an earthquake.

Today, under the umbrella of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, she's working to get similar ordinances passed in dozens of other California cities.

Just don't call her the "earthquake lady."

Press applied the moniker in the early days of her public-facing career, she said, when she first joined the team of USGS scientists tasked with answering media questions in the aftermath of earthquakes.

"The men were called seismologists and women called the 'earthquake ladies,'" she said, leaning back in her chair in the California Institute of Technology's seismology media room on a recent sunny Pasadena day. "It was a way of diminishing the science."

Jones built her USGS career researching earthquake foreshocks. But in the early 2000s, she said, she pivoted away from research, realizing that the science needed a translator who could synthesize data into something useable by policymakers and the general public.

"Scientists spend most of our life being uncertain, being wrong in pursuit of bigger answers. And we think that's what matters," she said. "But what we're doing when we respond to an earthquake isn't just about our science. People need reassurance when they're shaken up. By giving an earthquake a name, giving it a magnitude number, giving it a fault line, we make it containable."

She's partially pivoted away from earthquakes in recent years, working with scientists, policymakers and the public to prepare for a broad range of disasters and leading a project to build a catalogue of climate activist music.

"Climate change," she said," is so much worse."

Lucy Jones has led efforts to establish seismic safety regulations and introduce the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill, encouraging millions to participate in practicing the recommended safety measures during earthquakes. She was interviewed at the seismological laboratory in the California Institute of Technology Media Center on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

Who paved the way for your work?

As a young student, I was discouraged from doing math in school. But my dad would say, "Oh, yeah, women don't do science. But you're my daughter, you can do it." He didn't let me listen to what women were supposed to be doing.

When I arrived at (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) as a graduate student, I was the only woman in geophysics. But there was an amazing woman named Tanya Atwater who had just been hired as a professor when I got there. She's the one that figured out the plate tectonics of California. She became my mentor in a lot of ways.

I have had quite a few young women tell me that they got interested in earth science watching me on TV after earthquakes, which is sobering. At this point, I'm at the end of my career, so I've had a lot of young people I've mentored. I've had a dozen young people, mostly young women that have worked with me on various research projects.

I don't feel like I've had much direct input because of my role but look (at the roster of USGS scientists hanging in the seismology media room). Those are half women up there.

We're working on (developing the next Lucy Jones). There's a few of them I want to try and bring along. Media training for scientists isn't complete enough. We need to improve the interface between science and society.

What is your proudest moment?

My proudest moment was getting retrofitting ordinances passed in Los Angeles. That's the place where all my work sort of came to fruition and the science allowed us to get changes through to save lives. Mayor (Eric) Garcetti said there are people who won't be dying because of this work when the next earthquake hits.

What is your definition of courage?

That's pretty straightforward. Do what's right, even when it's scary.

You know, in this process, I had to walk away from what science considers the standard of success. I had to stop competing for the awards and the research papers and say, I'm gonna do what helps people. The funniest part is that I've gotten more awards since I decided to walk away.

There's been a big shift going on in science. Traditionally, we have lived very much in the ivory tower. Our job is to write papers, and it's somebody else's job to use it. But we can see now that this approach has left us where we are with climate change, destroying the world. The scientific community is recognizing we can't do it this way. We have an obligation to get the science to the people, to help the people who paid for this work to understand it.

Who do you look up to?

Right now, I really admire (historian) Heather Cox Richardson. I've been moving more toward the social side of things, and as a scientist, trying to understand human interactions. They're way more difficult to understand than earthquakes. She has an ability to see big pictures within fundamental human processes.

I'll be passé too: Hillary Clinton. Watching the way she got demeaned — up through the 2016 election — was frustrating. So many people see such bad things in her. If you've ever met her in person, she's the most incredibly gracious person.

She has the ability to not go down to that (low) level when being attacked. With time, you can look back over her career and look over interactions and recognize the degree to which subconscious feelings about gender affect how she's been seen. I can look back at my own career and see stuff I never would have seen as being wrong. It's not discrimination and it's not conscious. But you know, things like finally recognizing earthquake lady really wasn't a compliment.

What advice would you give your younger self?

You don't have to confine yourself to one thing. I ended up picking one thing, but I felt very bad about it. When I was young I couldn't decide. Did I want to go into the foreign service? Yeah. Become a scientist? Yeah. Become a musician? Yeah. The funny part here is at the end of my life, I'm actually able to put them all together. I make music about climate change. I'm able to travel the world. I don't think you have to define what you're going to be so early on.

I got here. But I had a lot more angst about it than I needed.

What's the best thing local governments can do to prepare for disaster?

Build resilience hubs: places and communities you know will be more capable of functioning after a disaster. Retrofit buildings. Make sure they have backup power.

The communities that recover the best have a high degree of social cohesion. They have people that are used to talking together and working together already. What can you do to increase connections? How do you help communities connect with each other?

Isaiah Murtaugh covers education for the Ventura County Star in partnership with Report for America. Reach him at or 805-437-0236 and follow him on Twitter @isaiahmurtaugh and @vcsschools. You can support this work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: California's 'earthquake czar' recognized by USA TODAY