Alison Malcolm

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Alison Malcolm
Alison E. Malcolm headshot.png
PhD Geophysics
PhD university Colorado School of Mines


Alison Malcolm has made major contributions in the theory and applications of multiple scattering comprising deterministic and stochastic points of view, has pioneered the introduction of nonlinear phenomena as a potential modality in seismic imaging, and has been deeply involved in the transition from imaging (linearized inverse problems) to solving nonlinear inverse problems for the wave equation locally by methods of optimization. In Alison’s research, the boundaries between applied and computational mathematics and applications in geophysics are blurred, which has led to some breakthroughs in the “real world” of imaging.

Biography Citation for the J. Clarence Karcher Award 2012

Contributed by Michael Fehler and Anna Shaughnessy

Alison Malcolm is a young geophysicist who has already made many significant contributions to the science and technology of exploration geophysics, to areas outside her primary field and demonstrated outstanding abilities as a scientist and a teacher. She is thus well deserving of the J. Clarence Karcher award, which is given to a small number of the most promising young geophysicists who have demonstrated their exceptional capability through their contributions to exploration geophysics. Alison has made excellent direct contributions through her research and publications with 17 refereed publications, 13 expanded abstracts, and one book chapter. She has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to elicit the best from her collaborators, to foster a strong collegial working environment, and to be a leader.

In exploration geophysics she has focused mainly on scattering, inverse scattering, and seismic imaging. She also continues to explore and make contributions to the study of the use of nonlinear phenomena in rocks for seismic imaging. Alison enthusiastically extends her interests beyond exploration geophysics. She has focused her talent on seismic scattering through both theoretical and laboratory studies. In addition, she has taken a keen interest in medical imaging, has initiated work to better determine the locations and uncertainties in locations of induced seismic events using a Bayesian approach, has overseen student work on time-lapse seismic methods applied to carbon sequestration, and has taken an interest in the application of seismic methods to improve the characterization of geothermal energy reservoirs. She is an excellent and popular mentor to both students and young research scientists at MIT. Alison began her geoscience career during her undergraduate years at the University of British Columbia.

There she wrote a bachelor’s degree thesis on using Fourier transforms of unequally sampled data to analyze seismic and sediment core data. From UBC, she moved on to the Colorado School of Mines where she is reputed to have completed work on two thesis projects, one on internal multiples under the supervision of Maarten de Hoop and the other on laboratory and theoretical studies of strongly scattered waves. John Scales, her advisor on the portion of her work that did not contribute directly to her degree, commented that one of the papers she wrote about this work is among his most cited papers. That Alison undertook two rather unrelated projects during her graduate career is a hallmark of her approach to science: she is fascinated by many problems, she has the insight for defining an effective research plan for addressing a problem that is new to her, and she shows tremendous enthusiasm for the work once it is underway. This has led Alison down many paths where she has made well-recognized contributions.

After she spent a year at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota and one-and-a-half years at Utrecht University, MIT was fortunate enough to attract her to a faculty position in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. There she is the principal investigator or coprincipal investigator on topics spanning a wide range of disciplines within the area of linear and nonlinear wave propagation and imaging. She is an inspired teacher, unafraid of learning new material for presentation to a class, and a valued colleague and friend.

It is no surprise that Alison received letters in support of her nomination for the Karcher award from colleagues at every organization where she has worked, from former fellow graduate students, and from her current collaborators. It speaks loudly to the impact that she has had both on science and to the relationships necessary to conduct good science. Alison is an exceptional scientist who is well deserving of the J. Clarence Karcher Award. Recipients like Alison greatly enhance the prestige of the award itself.