Renowned geologist James Quick named inaugural dean of SMU Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies

Distinguished geoscientist James Quick will open the doors to a new era of research and interdisciplinary collaboration.

DALLAS (SMU) – Distinguished geoscientist James Quick will open the doors to a new era of research and interdisciplinary collaboration as the inaugural dean of SMU’s newly created Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies.

SMU announced the creation of the Moody School in November 2019, made possible by a landmark $100 million gift from the Moody Foundation. The investment in graduate-level education is fueling SMU’s move to join the finest universities in the country in its development of research with impact, delivered by top-notch faculty and graduate students.

Quick, a volcanologist of international stature, joined SMU in 2007 as the University’s first Associate Vice President for Research and Dean of Graduate Studies, with the responsibilities of supporting increases in research activity and the number of students graduating with a Ph.D.  Since his arrival, research funding has increased from $14 million a year to $42 million a year, and annual graduation of Ph.D.s has increased from 45 to more than 70.

These increases contributed to SMU’s leap in 2011 past 55 sister institutions in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education to earn recognition for “high research activity.”  The creation of the Moody School positions SMU to compete for coveted “R1” status, which is reserved for those institutions with the highest research activity.

“The new Moody School of Graduate and Advanced Studies is going to expand research efforts of SMU, the impact of which will benefit the universities, laboratories and businesses that employ our doctoral graduates,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “Dean Quick is a passionate advocate for research and the cultivation of scholars, and is well placed to deliver on the promise of the Moody School to deliver research with even greater impact.”

The Moody School will begin formal operations during the 2020-21 academic year. The broad endowment funding provided by the Moody Foundation will guarantee the strength of the school in perpetuity, while the operational funds included in the gift provide for immediate impact. In addition to becoming the inaugural dean of the Moody School, Quick also retains the title of associate provost for research.

“Jim Quick was the chair of the faculty task force that spelled out the need for and ultimate creation of the new Moody School,” said Peter Moore, SMU provost and vice president for academic affairs ad interim. “He’s a natural for this position.”

About 45 percent of students at SMU are graduate students pursuing a master’s degree, doctorate or Ph.D., but the creation of the Moody School will create opportunities for all SMU students by extending to undergraduates more opportunities to participate in significant research and learn from prestigious faculty.

“The gift establishing the Moody School is an unprecedented investment in SMU, providing essential tools to dramatically elevate the University’s reputation in graduate education and powering its advance among research universities,” Quick said. “The opportunity to help guide SMU on this path as the Inaugural Dean is simultaneously exciting and humbling, and I look forward to working with SMU’s faculty to elevate graduate education, scholarship and research across the University.”

Eventually, all graduate degrees through Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, Lyle School of Engineering, Meadows School of the Arts and Simmons School of Education and Human Development will be administered jointly through the Moody School.  Students will receive diplomas to both their individual schools of study and the Moody School.

The Cox School of Business, Dedman School of Law and Perkins School of Theology do not offer Ph.D. studies and will continue to manage their own terminal degrees.  But the Moody School will link interdisciplinary research and professional development from all SMU schools.

Quick joined SMU after a 25-year scientific career with the United States Geological Survey, including as program coordinator for the Volcano Hazards Program, where he supervised monitoring of the nation’s 169 volcanoes to provide critical early warning of eruptions.  He has remained an active researcher during his tenure at SMU.

In 2009 Quick led scientists from the University of Trieste to discover an enormous, 280-million-year-old  supervolcano fossil in the Sesia Valley in northern Italy, revealing the never-seen-before “plumbing” of a supervolcano all the way through the Earth’s crust. Italian geologists awarded Quick the Capellini Medal in September 2010 for the discovery, and the area encompassing the supervolcano later won UNESCO designation as the Sesia-Val Grande Geopark. Quick was named an honorary citizen of the city of Borgosesia, Italy, in recognition of the significance of the Sesia Valley discovery.

Quick became a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in November 2013.  He was honored for his distinguished contributions to geologic science and volcanic risk assessment, particularly for the study of magmatic systems and for service to governments in assessing geologic risk.


About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas.  SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world. 



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Smithsonian has extended Sea Monsters Unearthed exhibit one more year to 2021

DALLAS (SMU) – “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” was given an additional year at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It will now be on display until 2021.

The exhibit has been viewed by 6 million visitors since it opened last year, leading to Smithsonian granting a longer stay for the exhibit in the Washington, D.C. museum. It was originally supposed to leave next year. Smithsonian also asked for an additional exhibit window for “Sea Monsters Unearthed,” showcasing the international and interdisciplinary collaboration that went into discovering the fossils.

The exhibit showcases never-before-seen fossils from Angola that was made possible largely due to the work of SMU vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs and his colleagues and undergraduates. SMU Emeritus Professor of Paleontology Louis Jacobs and his SMU colleague Michael Polcyn forged a partnership with collaborators in Angola, Portugal and the Netherlands to explore and excavate Angola’s rich fossil history, while laying the groundwork for returning the fossils to the West African nation. Back in Dallas, Jacobs and Polcyn, director of the University’s Digital Earth Sciences Lab, and research associate Diana Vineyard went to work over a period of 13 years with a small army of SMU students to prepare the fossils excavated by Projecto PaleoAngola. These students – including Myria Perez, a former paleontology student who is now a fossil preparator at the Perot Museum – worked in basement laboratories to painstakingly clean and preserve the fossils.

“Sea Monsters Unearthed” allows visitors to visually dive into the cool waters off the coast of West Africa as they existed millions of years ago when the continents of Africa and South America were drifting apart. It’s a unique opportunity to examine fossils of ancient marine reptiles and learn about the forces that continue to mold life both in out of the ocean.

After 2021, the exhibit will return to Angola. Learn more here.


About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

About the National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is connecting people everywhere with Earth’s unfolding story. The museum is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world with approximately 7 million annual visitors from the U.S. and around the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum on its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

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Researchers unveil new volcanic eruption forecasting technique

Volcanic eruptions and their ash clouds pose a significant hazard to population centers and air travel, especially those that show few to no signs of unrest beforehand. Geologists are now using a technique traditionally used in weather and climate forecasting to develop new eruption forecasting models. By testing if the models are able to capture the likelihood of past eruptions, the researchers are making strides in the science of volcanic forecasting.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, examined the eruption history of the Okmok volcano in Alaska. In 2008, a large eruption produced an ash plume that extended approximately 1 mile into the sky over the Aleutian Islands – posing a significant hazard to aircraft engines along a route that transports roughly 50,000 people between Asia and North America each day, the researchers said.

“The 2008 eruption of Okmok came as a bit of surprise,” said University of Illinois graduate student and lead author Jack Albright. “After an eruption that occurred in 1997, there were periods of slight unrest, but very little seismicity or other eruption precursors. In order to develop better forecasting, it is crucial to understand volcanic eruptions that deviate from the norm.”

Geologists typically forecast eruptions by looking for established patterns of preeruption unrest such as earthquake activity, groundswell and gas release, the researchers said. Volcanoes like Okmok, however, don’t seem to follow these established patterns.

To build and test new models, the team utilized a statistical data analysis technique developed after World War II called Kalman filtering.

“The version of Kalman filtering that we used for our study was updated in 1996 and has continued to be used in weather and climate forecasting, as well as physical oceanography,” said U. of I. geology professor Patricia Gregg, a co-author of the study that included collaborators from SMU (Southern Methodist University) and Michigan State University. “We are the first group to use the updated method in volcanology, however, and it turns out that this technique works well for the unique unrest that led up to Okmok’s 2008 eruption.”

One of those unique attributes is the lack of increased seismicity before the eruption, the researchers said. In a typical preeruption sequence, it is hypothesized that the reservoir under the volcano stays the same size as it fills with magma and hot gases. That filling causes pressure in the chamber to increase and the surrounding rocks fracture and move, causing earthquakes.

“In the 2008 eruption, it appears that the magma chamber grew larger to accommodate the increasing pressure, so we did not see the precursor seismic activity we would expect,” Albright said. “By looking back in time with our models, or hindcasting, we can now observe that stress had been building up in the rocks around the chamber for weeks, and the growth of the magma system ultimately led to its failure and eruption.”

This type of backward and forward modeling allows researchers to watch a volcanic system evolve over time. “While we stopped our analysis after the 2008 eruption, we are now able to propagate this new model forward in time, bring it to present day, and forecast where Okmok volcano is heading next,” Gregg said.

The researchers posit that these models will continue to find other less-recognized eruption precursors, but acknowledge that every volcano is different and that the models must be tailored to fit each unique system.

The volcano forecasting technique used in this study was based on volcano deformation data from GPS and satellite radars. Geophysicist Zhong Lu, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU and a global expert in satellite radar imagery analysis, processed the satellite radar images and provided the volcano deformation maps for this research.

The U. of I. team is working in collaboration with researchers from Alaska Volcano Observatory and SMU to help build a stronger forecasting system for the Aleutian Islands area. The researchers received $541,921 in grant money from NASA for the work in early 2019.

Popular Mechanics, Sci Tech Daily and other outlets highlighted the study. — University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign




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New map outlines seismic faults across DFW region

Study by SMU, UT Austin and Stanford scientists rates faults for potential earthquakes; Faults under DFW urban area viewed as lower quake hazard


DALLAS (SMU) – Scientists from SMU, The University of Texas at Austin and Stanford University found that the majority of faults underlying the Fort Worth Basin are as sensitive to forces that could cause them to slip as those that have hosted earthquakes in the past.


The new study, published July 23rd by the journal Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA), provides the most comprehensive fault information for the region to date. 


Fault slip potential modeling explores two scenarios: a model based on subsurface stress on the faults prior to high-volume wastewater injection and a model of those forces reflecting increase in fluid pressure due to injection.


A simplified version of the fault map created by the team of researchers. The map includes faults that are visible at the surface (green) and faults that are underground (black). The solid line indicates underground faults that researchers were able to map at a high resolution. The dotted line indicates faults that were mapped at a medium resolution. According to the research, in the presence of wastewater injection activity, the majority of the faults in the area are as susceptible to slipping as those faults that have already produced earthquakes. The map also marks earthquake locations and waste-water injection well locations and amounts. Credit: UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology

None of the faults shown to have the highest potential for an earthquake are located in the most populous Dallas-Fort Worth urban area or in the areas where there are currently many wastewater disposal wells.


Yet, the study also found that the majority of faults underlying the Fort Worth Basin are as sensitive to forces that could cause them to slip and cause an earthquake as those that have hosted earthquakes in recent years.


Though the majority of the faults identified on this map have not produced an earthquake, understanding why some faults have slipped and others with similar fault slip potential have not continues to be researched, said SMU seismologist and study co-author Heather DeShon, who has been the lead investigator of a series of other studies exploring the cause of the North Texas earthquakes.

Earthquakes were virtually unheard of in North Texas until slightly more than a decade ago. But more than 200 earthquakes have occurred in the region since late 2008, ranging in magnitude from 1.6 to 4.0. A series of studies have linked these events to the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas operations by injecting it deep into the earth at high volumes, triggering “dead” faults nearby.

A total of 251 faults have been identified in the Fort Worth Basin, but the researchers suspect that more exist that haven’t been identified. 

The study found that the faults remained relatively stable if they were left undisturbed. However, wastewater injection sharply increased the chances of these faults slipping, if they weren’t managed properly.


“That means the whole system of faults is sensitive,” said the lead author of the study Peter L. Hennings, a research scientist from UT Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology and the principal investigator at the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research (CISR). 

DeShon said the new study provides fundamental information regarding earthquake hazard to the Dallas-Fort Worth region.


“The SMU earthquake catalog and the Texas Seismic Network catalog provide necessary earthquake data for understanding faults active in Texas right now,” she said. “This study provides key information to allow the public, cities, state and federal governments and industry to understand potential hazard and design effective public policies, regulations and mitigation strategies.”

“Industrial activities can increase the probability of triggering earthquakes before they would happen naturally, but there are steps we can take to reduce that probability,” added co-author Jens-Erik Lund Snee, a doctoral student at Stanford University.


Earthquake rates, like wastewater injection volumes, have decreased significantly since a peak in 2012.  But as long as earthquakes occur, earthquake hazard remains. Dallas-Fort Worth remains the highest risk region for earthquakes in Texas because of population density.

Even after the earthquakes died away, North Texas residents have wondered about the region’s vulnerability to future earthquakes – especially since no map was available to pinpoint the existence of all known faults in the region.  The new data, while still incomplete, benefited from information gleaned from newly released reflection seismic data held by oil and gas companies, reanalysis of publicly available well logs, and geologic outcrop information.

U of T at Austin and Stanford University provided the fault data and calculated fault slip potential. SMU, meanwhile, has been tracking seismic activity — which measures when the earth shakes —since people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area felt the first tremors near DFW International Airport in 2008. A catalog of all those tremors was recently published in June in the journal BSSA.

SMU seismologists have also been the lead or co-authors of a series of studies on the North Texas earthquakes. SMU research showed that many of the Dallas-Fort Worth earthquakes were triggered by increases in pore pressure — the pressure of groundwater trapped within tiny spaces inside rocks in the subsurface. An independent study done by SMU’s seismologist Beatrice Magnani found that wastewater injection reactivated dormant faults near Dallas that had been dormant for the last 300 million years.  

DeShon said any future plan to mine for oil or natural gas in Fort Worth basin should be done with an understanding that the basin contains several faults that are highly-sensitive to pore-pressure changes. The study noted that rates of injection dropped sharply in the Fort Worth basin, but the practice still continues. Most of the injection that has taken place has been concentrated in the Johnson, Tarrant, and Parker counties, near areas of continued seismic activity.  

“The largest earthquake the Dallas-Fort Worth region experienced was a magnitude 4 in 2015” DeShon said. “The U.S. Geological Survey and Red Cross provide practical preparedness advice for your home and work places. Just as we prepare for tornado season in north Texas, it remains important for us to have a plan for experiencing earthquake shaking.”

Many outlets covered the news:

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

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DNA from 31,000-year-old human teeth reveals new ethnic group living in Siberia during last Ice Age

An international team of researchers, including SMU anthropologist David Meltzer, discovered a new group of ancient Siberians. The research was published June 5, 2019 as a story in Nature

Two children’s milk teeth buried deep in a remote archaeological site in north eastern Siberia have revealed a previously unknown group of people lived there during the last Ice Age.

The finding was part of a wider study, which also discovered 10,000 year-old human remains in another site in Siberia are genetically related to Native Americans – the first time such close genetic links have been discovered outside of the US.

The two 31,000-year-old milk teeth found at the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site in Russia which led to the discovery of a new group of ancient Siberians. Photo credit: Russian Academy of Sciences.

The international team of scientists, led by Professor Eske Willerslev who holds positions at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and is director of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, have named the new people group the ‘Ancient North Siberians’ and described their existence as ‘a significant part of human history’.

The DNA was recovered from the only human remains discovered from the era – two tiny milk teeth – that were found in a large archaeological site found in Russia near the Yana River. The site, known as Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site (RHS), was found in 2001 and features more than 2,500 artifacts of animal bones and ivory along with stone tools and evidence of human habitation.

The discovery was published on June 5 as part of a wider study in Nature and shows the Ancient North Siberians endured extreme conditions in the region 31,000 years ago and survived by hunting woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and bison. Several publications, such as The New York Times and Science Magazine, also covered the discovery.

Professor Willerslev said: “These people were a significant part of human history, they diversified almost at the same time as the ancestors of modern day Asians and Europeans and it’s likely that at one point they occupied large regions of the northern hemisphere.”

Dr Martin Sikora, of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics and first author of the study, added: “They adapted to extreme environments very quickly, and were highly mobile. These findings have changed a lot of what we thought we knew about the population history of north eastern Siberia but also what we know about the history of human migration as a whole.”

Researchers estimate that the population numbers at the site would have been around 40 people with a wider population of around 500. Genetic analysis of the milk teeth revealed the two individuals sequenced showed no evidence of inbreeding which was occurring in the declining Neanderthal populations at the time.

The complex population dynamics during this period and genetic comparisons to other people groups, both ancient and recent, are documented as part of the wider study which analyzed 34 samples of human genomes found in ancient archaeological sites across northern Siberia and central Russia.

Professor Laurent Excoffier from the University of Bern, Switzerland, said: “Remarkably, the Ancient North Siberians people are more closely related to Europeans than Asians and seem to have migrated all the way from Western Eurasia soon after the divergence between Europeans and Asians.”

Scientists found the Ancient North Siberians generated the mosaic genetic make-up of contemporary people who inhabit a vast area across northern Eurasia and the Americas – providing the ‘missing link’ of understanding the genetics of Native American ancestry.

It is widely accepted that humans first made their way to the Americas from Siberia into Alaska via a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait which was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. The researchers were able to pinpoint some of these ancestors as Asian people groups who mixed with the Ancient North Siberians.

One of the paper’s senior authors, Professor David Meltzer from Southern Methodist University (SMU), explained: “We gained important insight into population isolation and admixture that took place during the depths of the Last Glacial Maximum – the coldest and harshest time of the Ice Age – and ultimately the ancestry of the peoples who would emerge from that time as the ancestors of the indigenous people of the Americas.” Meltzer is an anthropologist at SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences.

This discovery was based on the DNA analysis of a 10,000 year-old male remains found at a site near the Kolyma River in Siberia. The individual derives his ancestry from a mixture of Ancient North Siberian DNA and East Asian DNA, which is very similar to that found in Native Americans. It is the first time human remains this closely related to the Native American populations have been discovered outside of the US.

Professor Willerslev added: “The remains are genetically very close to the ancestors of Paleo-Siberian speakers and close to the ancestors of Native Americans. It is an important piece in the puzzle of understanding the ancestry of Native Americans as you can see the Kolyma signature in the Native Americans and Paleo-Siberians. This individual is the missing link of Native American ancestry.” — St. John’s College, University of Cambridge

Read The New York Times article here. More publications on the discovery can be found here:

A 31,000-year-old milk tooth was discovered in this small area among ancient remnants of tools and animal bones. Photo credit: Elena Pavlova


About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.