Alison Bird

“I thought it was fascinating,” recalls Alison Bird of the first earthquake she experienced while living in Vancouver. Years later, Alison was working in Ontario and looking to return to British Columbia but was concerned about finding work. Flipping through a University of Victoria academic calendar, she saw something that intrigued her. “I had never noticed that you could take courses in earthquake seismology. I thought, maybe if I don’t get work right away, I’ll take some courses.”

Fortunately for Alison, she didn’t find work right away, and a couple of seismology courses snowballed into a master’s degree. “It was the best choice I could have made—I love what I do.” Now Alison is an Earthquake Seismologist for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in B.C. Much of her time is spent at her desk performing duties such as processing earthquake data and conducting earthquake analyses that go into the National Building Code of Canada. Alison also interacts with the public as part of her job.

She does this in a number of ways, including conducting tours of the GSC facilities and making public presentations. Alison enjoys her outreach work. “It’s a great way to educate people. The more people that are prepared for earthquakes, the better we’ll be able to handle a large scale quake.” She also likes the engineering and scientific aspects of her job. This includes calculating seismic hazards, analyzing seismic data, constructing computer maps and writing new computer algorithms to interpret seismic data. Alison says it is an empowering feeling to know that people rely on her scientific abilities to interpret the numbers she gathers into information Canadians can use to prepare themselves for a potential earthquake.

There are drawbacks to Alison’s work, however. The largest one is preparing for the aftermath of a large earthquake. She admits “it can be very saddening,” trying to understand and handle such large-scale devastation. Another drawback is the public’s misconception of the role of a seismologist: “A lot of people think we know how to predict earthquakes and when they’re going to happen and that we’re just not telling anyone!” Alison says that it’s impossible to predict earthquakes and that her job is not about fear-mongering but about making people aware of the possibility of earthquakes. “We need to be prepared and we need to take [earthquakes] seriously. I am a person as well as a scientist, and above all, I’m concerned about the welfare of the people.”