When Cliff Frohlich joined UTIG in 1978 he didn’t move to Austin, he moved to Galveston, where the institute was originally located. His focus was on ocean bottom seismography but from the moment he was hired, he was told to focus on science.
“One of the wonderful things about the Institute is that from the beginning they basically said, you’re a research scientist, we don’t know what you should be thinking about but figure it out. As long as some of it’s earth science, do the best science that you can,” Frohlich said. “I’ve had a career where nobody has ever prevented me from thinking about something I’m curious about and that’s something special because I’ve done a lot of things.”
And that’s exactly what he did for the last 40 years – research what interested him. Over the years he has studied the ocean bottom, earthquake statistics, deep earthquakes, Texas earthquakes, and manmade earthquakes. The latter is what Cliff is most known for recently, as his phone regularly rings as soon as an earthquake is felt in Texas. His interest in manmade or induced earthquakes began thanks to a graduate student, Scott Davis, he inherited when another professor left UT because their interest in manmade earthquakes wasn’t taking off at the time.
“I said (to Davis), ‘if you’re working with me you need to work on deep earthquakes and earthquake statistics because there is obviously no future in manmade earthquakes,” Frohlich remembered. “(Davis’s) approach to my advice was he continued to work on induced earthquakes and also worked on deep earthquakes and earthquake statistics. And of course the result was that he drew me into discussions about manmade earthquakes.”
This led to Frohlich’s “hobby” on Texas induced earthquakes. With no funding or great interest outside of his own, it was something he studied for years, leading him to become an expert when manmade earthquakes became a hot topic recently. When two earthquakes near Dallas occurred in 2008, he worked with colleagues at Southern Methodist University (SMU), turned out to be first manmade earthquakes of the new era.
“I was on the forefront of the renaissance of manmade earthquakes,” he said. “I’ve often said, ‘an expert is somebody who was publishing on something before the smart people thought it was important.'”
Growing up in a family of writers, Cliff determined that he was the third best writer and that maybe he’d try a different route. When Sputnik went into orbit, he remembers hearing that math and science was the future for careers, so he thought he’d try that. The joke was on him though as he estimates a large majority of his job is actually writing.
“In my career, publishing has been hugely important,” he said. “I think a lot of people publish because they have to because of a grant or otherwise, I’d say that many of my papers, I didn’t have to write. My knee jerk reaction as a scientist if if I figure something out, I should write about it.”
His advice to new researchers is to find problems that are important and do the best science that they can.
He adds, “On one hand be careful not to publish as much as you can, but two, be careful to work on important problems. Take the time to do it right. Those are kinda opposite – taking the time to do it right and working on a hard problem means that you publish less but publishing a lot means that you’ve gotta get something out and they are both true.”
While Frohlich has spent most of his time at UTIG studying what interested in him, he also served as Associate Director for the last 20 years.
Upon his retirement, UTIG Director Terry Quinn said, “Cliff has provided wise counsel and guidance to previous directors and me. I am especially grateful to Cliff for his friendship over the years as well.”
So what are his plans now that he’s retiring? He’ll still be around UTIG as a researcher emeritus , is going to be a visiting scientist at SMU, and plans to spend more time with family and working on some hobbies, like woodworking, cycling, and writing.
Cliff will be giving an overview of his career at a Brown Bag Seminar on November 8, please join us.