IRIS-PASSCAL Dedicates Test Vault To Former Program Manager

SOCORRO, N.M. April 5, 2012 – On a beautiful spring day, staff from New Mexico Tech’s Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) PASSCAL Instrument Center, the Washington DC and Seattle offices of IRIS, the U.S. Geological Survey, Sandia National Labs, several research universities, and Tech students and faculty assembled for the surprise dedication of the PASSCAL Instrument Center seismometer testing vault to Dr. Jim Fowler, founding Program Manager for IRIS PASSCAL

Dr. Jim Fowler speaks at the dedication of the Seismometer Testing Observatory at the IRIS-PASSCAL Instrument Center.

The plaque honoring Fowler's service to the organization.

The test vault in action; seismological instrumentation getting routine testing in between deployments.
Photos by Shane Ingate/IRIS-PASSCAL
“It was quite an honor and I was surprised,” Fowler said. “I didn’t expect it.”

Before a gathering of more than 75 people, Dr. Bob Woodward, IRIS Director for Instrumentation Services emceed a series of speakers that included Dr. Rick Aster, principal investigator for the Instrument Center and Professor of Geophysics at New Mexico Tech, and Dr. David Simpson, President of IRIS. Simpson presented Jim’s wife, Cynthia, with a bouquet of flowers in recognition for her contribution during Jim’s 25 years of service.  Fowler was then invited to the podium and thanked the staff of PASSCAL and IRIS for “the easiest job he has ever had.”

The unique test vault faciltiy was completed in 2008, and was described by Woodward as “world class.” The facility is designed to test and calibrate highly sensitive broadband seismometers in the PASSCAL Instrument Center fleet. The Center is the largest lending library for research seismological instrumentation in the world and is a leading force in development of new equipment designed for research in extreme environments.

“We’ve advanced the science of portable seismology to where we are able to do things that could only be dreamed of in the past,” Fowler said. “Our equipment is extensive and much of it is very sensitive and requires a lot of maintenance.”

Aster said Fowler is very deserving of being the namesake of a part of the Center.

“As Program Manager, he was absolutely instrumental – pun intended – in the growth and success not only of the PASSCAL program, but of all of IRIS and seismology during the past 25 years,” Aster said.

Jim Fowler started as IRIS Chief Engineer in 1984, and became the founding manager for the PASSCAL program. In the late 1990s, New Mexico Tech won the contract with the National Science Foundation and IRIS to become the home of the nation’s sole lending library for research seismological instrumentation. When the facility opened in Socorro in 1999, Fowler relocated from Washington, D.C., back to his home state of New Mexico, and set up an office in the PASSCAL Instrument Center.

“Jim was our immediate ally in helping to make the transition of the Instrument Center to New Mexico Tech,” Aster said. “It was not clear that he would move to New Mexico when our proposal was funded, but I was very happy when he indicated that he and Cynthia would like to relocate to Socorro. This was a strong vote of confidence in us, because we had to both build the facility AND hire a staff without disrupting the program!”

Fowler said relocating to Socorro was an easy decision. He thought it would be easier to run the center and commute to Washington periodically, rather than trying to direct the center’s activities from the Capitol. One of the most rewarding aspects of his job was developing a new generation of scientists.

“PASSCAL has done a lot in educating students and graduate students – and even professors – in the art of field work and how to go out and collect data and analyze it to make scientific conclusions,” Fowler said. “I think we have a rather unique program.”

The Instrument Center staff honored Fowler at a special dinner in February, at which the theme was “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” Aster said the theme was chosen out of admiration for Fowler’s leadership.

“The ‘Most Interesting’ accolades reflect the respect that the staff has for him, as well as his perpetual good humor,” Aster said.

Fowler may be officially retired, but he will maintain a presence at the facility. He will continue as Special Advisor for Engineering and Instrumentation.

“We have extremely happy to have Jim with us in the Instrument Center as we continue to serve our very large group of users and develop innovative instrumentation to facilitate new seismological science,” Aster said. “His accumulated wisdom and deep knowledge of the scientific and technical communities will continue to help us as we move forward.”

Some 1,500 sensors have been tested since the facility came on-line in mid-2009. Temperature stability is critical to testing such sensitive instruments, and the facility is unique in that it is a surface building that was constructed to mitigate the 100oF annual  and 30-50o day-to-night temperature variations routinely observed in Socorro. This was achieved through the use of several hundred tons of concrete buried at the center of the building, with 3-foot thick walls constructed of pumice mined locally from the Jemez Mountains.

The interior temperature of the building varies by no more that 1oF daily, and 20oF annually. This is achieved solely through passive technology without any active air handling. Another key feature is the use of two granodiorite slabs to ensure vibrational coherency between sensors placed on their surface, each measuring 10’x4’x10” and weighing 17,000 lbs.  Woodward described these slabs as “oversized kitchen countertops”.  The facility also runs entirely on solar power, to minimize electronic noise.

At the close of the ceremonies, a granite plaque on the wall of the vault, made from the same material as the granodiorite slabs of the vault, commemorating the event was revealed.  All attendees were invited to tour of the facility, and then retired to the main building for a buffet lunch.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

And Shane Ingate/IRIS-PASSCAL