Paul Hsieh

2014 Ambassador Award Winner

Paul A. Hsieh was awarded the 2014 Ambassador Awards at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 17 December 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. The award is in recognition of “outstanding contributions to the following area(s): societal impact, service to the Earth and space community, scientific leadership, and promotion of talent/career pool.”


Paul Hsieh famously played a key role in resolving the disastrous 2010 blowout of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. Many news accounts of Paul’s role in capping the well can be found simply by an internet search on the phrase “Paul Hsieh hero.”

Paul’s success during the Macondo incident is no surprise. Rather, it is part of a career-long pattern of developing and applying fundamental scientific principles to resolve important societal issues.

Paul is a world leader in two complementary research areas: (1) the hydrology of fractured rocks and (2) the coupling between fluid flow, stress, and deformation. Perhaps more significant in the context of this award is how Paul has parlayed that expertise in terms of societal impact and service to the Earth science community.

The U.S. Geological Survey has a large program of cooperative studies in which state and local government entities help fund hydrologic investigations. Paul is part of the relatively small cadre of research scientists who assist this operational program on important and intractable problems. For instance, Paul led the successful completion of a sole-source aquifer model spanning the -Washington-​-Idaho border. The responsible state agencies were initially wary of each other, but Paul quickly developed working relationships, and under his leadership the team produced timely and -well-​-received results. This and many similar examples highlight Paul’s ability to formulate solutions to hydrologic problems and bring all parties to the table. To facilitate such efforts, Paul has created open-source software for visualization of model results—tools that have considerably advanced the degree to which modelers can gain insight from simulations and effectively communicate results.

Paul’s stature in the field of -fractured-​rock hydrogeology led to service on three National Research Council committees, including the Panel on Conceptual Models of Flow and Transport in the Fractured Vadose Zone. This committee, which Paul chaired, was particularly important. Water collected at Yucca Mountain showed that bomb blast isotopes had penetrated deep into the unsaturated zone. This unexpected observation required leading scientists to critique existing theory and explore alternatives. At the time the site was approved, the future of Yucca Mountain as a viable nuclear waste repository depended on understanding this phenomenon.

This background illustrates Paul A. Hsieh’s -career-​long pattern of developing and applying fundamental science to resolve important societal issues. Paul is a zealous and unselfish collaborator, motivated entirely by the goal of achieving -high-​-quality science, and an exemplary recipient for the inaugural Ambassador Award.

—Steve Ingebritsen, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.


Thank you, Steve, for nominating me, and thank you to my colleagues who wrote letters to support the nomination. I am deeply grateful to AGU for selecting me as one of the five recipients of the Ambassador Award. In today’s world in which human impacts are manifested on a global scale, it is highly fitting for AGU to emphasize the role of science in addressing societal issues, not only for today but also for future generations.

As an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1970s, I was drawn to hydrologic science through the classes taught by George Pinder and William Gray. Their pioneering work on computer modeling in hydrology instantly captured my fascination. Shortly thereafter, I had the good fortune of being hired by John Bredehoeft to work at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Under John’s guidance, I learned how to transform difficult questions into tractable problems—a process elegantly demonstrated in many of John’s papers. During graduate school at the University of Arizona, I learned from my advisor, Shlomo Neuman, the importance of understanding fundamental theory and not simply learning methods and procedures. It is through such fundamental understanding that one is able to expand beyond one’s own area of study to collaborate with others in related fields. To my mentors who invested time and energy in my education and growth, I am truly grateful.

I consider USGS my professional family. It is a joy to be among peers who are totally dedicated to their work. During my career, I have been allowed the opportunity to pursue different areas of work, from groundwater contamination to induced seismicity. Such diversity of work has greatly contributed to my career growth. I am thankful to be part of an organization that recognizes its employees as its most valuable assets.

My participation in the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a career highlight. It was a privilege to serve on the government science team, led by -then secretary of energy Steven Chu. In my opinion, it was Dr. Chu’s deep understanding of science and his wisdom in balancing risks and benefits that led us through the environmental crisis. It was a great example of the importance of science in decision making. Yet even the best scientists today must suffer the slings and arrows of a politicized society, a situation to which climate scientists, for example, are no strangers. And so we must continue to strive for rigor and openness in our work.

—Paul A. Hsieh, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.