(Photo courtesy of Xyoli Pérez-Campos)
Staying grounded in a seismic hotspot
A geophysics PhD alumna is the public face of earthquake science and monitoring in Mexico.
As a child in Mexico, Xyoli Pérez-Campos dreamed of becoming a seismologist and working for her country’s National Seismological Service. But she never imagined that she would lead it.
She also couldn’t have imagined it would involve sleepless nights that make graduate school seem like a walk in the park – but like her education, they were worth it.
“It’s not as hard as I imagined – it’s still seismology,” said Pérez-Campos, who is the first point of contact when a large earthquake hits Mexico. “And then I get to work with the data, I get to work with the people here.”
Pérez-Campos earned her PhD in geophysics in 2002 as an advisee of Greg Beroza, the Wayne Loel Professor in the Department of Geophysics. As head of the Servicio Sismológico Nacional (SSN), the National Seismological Service of Mexico – Mexico’s equivalent of the Advanced National Seismic System of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) – she is essentially the “public face of earthquakes in Mexico,” according to Beroza.
When she is not fielding emergency response calls, Pérez-Campos can be found teaching, advising, and making sense of Earth’s rumblings in Mexico City, where she is a professor at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Her research explores seismic energy and how it connects to the seismic source, as well as the identification of factors that contribute to damage potential and tsunami early warning.
While she finds the research aspect of her job second nature, transitioning from crunching data behind closed doors to becoming a spokesperson on behalf of one of the most seismically active countries in the world and its nearly 130 million residents has been one of the biggest hurdles in her career.
“What I do requires lots of communications to the general public and that’s been the most challenging part,” she said. “You need communications skills to explain the science in a manner that the general public understands, politicians understand.”
A formative experience
In 1985, the magnitude 8.0 Michoacán earthquake struck the Mexico City region, and Pérez-Campos credits the event for inspiring her to pursue geophysics. She was 11 years old.
She remembered seeing flattened buildings near her home, and how her uncle miraculously survived the collapse of a 13-story apartment building in an area of the city devastated by the quake. It struck during her second week of middle school, and she and her classmates were moved to a different school for several months until their building could be retrofitted. The whole experience left her with burning questions about what had happened, why the buildings had collapsed – and what exactly was an earthquake, anyway?
Not long after the event that killed more than 10,000 people and left an estimated 250,000 homeless, her mother took her to a career fair, where Pérez-Campos learned about geophysics and Mexico’s seismological service.
“I decided I wanted to be a seismologist and I wanted to work at the National Seismological Service,” she said. “Except that back then I didn’t know there were technicians that handled it.”
That goal drove Pérez-Campos to pursue a PhD in the Department of Geophysics at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), where she earned master’s degrees in geophysics (1999) and statistics (2001) along the way. Under Beroza’s guidance, she formed interpersonal relationships and research collaborations that gave her the soft skills to successfully carry out the dynamic demands of being a professor and head of a national agency today.
“I don’t have a good memory, but I perfectly remember a few conversations and actions that set up my path and examples of how to be a good researcher and advisor,” she said.
She recalled having lunch with Beroza soon after she started at Stanford to discuss the focus of her research. Based on her wish to go back to Mexico and work at UNAM, he suggested research projects that would help differentiate her in her field and make it easier to return to her home country.
“And he was completely right,” Pérez-Campos said. “Having someone that actually listens to you and sees your own goals and future – I think that’s the best role of an advisor.”
Beroza also taught her the importance of work-life balance by attending her ballet folklórico performances and listening when she needed it most, Pérez-Campos said.
She excelled academically, but graduate school was not without its challenges – especially when it came to her mental health. Pérez-Campos had a difficult time dealing with depression and learned that in addition to receiving encouragement from her advisor, she needed to rely on good friends and a support system for help, she said.
“Look for help and ask for it and use it because you are not alone – we’re not alone,” Pérez-Campos advised others. “We think that we’re the only ones going through it. No, we’re not.”
After earning her PhD, armed with the technical skills in computational programming and physics to carry out her research on the geometry of the Cocos plate, Pérez-Campos accepted a position as a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology.
She began her professional career in 2003 as an assistant professor in the School of Engineering at UNAM, then transferred to the Geophysics Institute at UNAM in 2005 and rose through the ranks to become a full professor in 2012.
“I think when you teach you are making your own future because you are preparing the next generation,” she said. “If I want a better country, I better prepare good engineers.”
Coming full circle
When Pérez-Campos was selected to lead the SSN in 2014, her responsibilities multiplied. She manages the country’s seismological networks, monitors seismicity, and communicates earthquakes above magnitude 5.0 through the national disaster prevention center and tsunami warning center.
Precisely 32 years after the Michoacán earthquake that shook her childhood, Pérez-Campos found herself on the other side of an earthquake story: as the head of the SSN during a major seismic event. A magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit central Mexico and Mexico City on Sept. 19, 2017, soon after the magnitude 8.2 Chiapas earthquake on Sept. 7.
Pérez-Campos proved her propensity for calm under pressure during those earthquakes, which leveled dozens of buildings in Mexico City, killed hundreds, and produced countless aftershocks.
“I was getting tons of interviews from all over the world and, here in Mexico, dealing with authorities, trying to explain what had happened, giving press conferences, and talking to the public because they were very scared when there were hundreds of aftershocks,” she said. “I spent four months of sleeping four hours a day because it was too much. Plus, I had to do some research and teaching, so I had to squeeze that in somehow.”
Putting the public first
The experience also positioned her as an influential figure with the Mexican public and helped her find her voice – and amplify it. “I started appreciating the interaction with the media since it can become a powerful channel for outreach to people who are eager for information and data,” she said.
Her public speaking skills have grown over time, improved in small part by a Stanford course she took on physiology that explained how stress is the body’s natural response to prepare you for what’s coming next, she said. “It was difficult managing my stress and my anxiety in those challenging situations,” she said. “Now I know that I’m preparing myself to come up with ideas and I’m transforming my stress into something positive.”
Since taking up leadership of the SSN, Pérez-Campos has improved the communications systems and strategies with authorities during earthquakes and expanded the channels for reaching the public to include social media and proactive outreach.
The public outreach, in particular, has taught her how to relate geophysical concepts to her audience and employ metaphors in science communications. For example, convection in the mantle can be understood as the way soup moves while it is boiling in a pot, she said.
She brought years of research experience to the position, including the ability to integrate multiple technologies, analyze seismic signals, and interpret data. And she’s an advocate of majoring in geophysics because of the variety of career options it can offer.
“For me, geophysics is a very passionate field because it has so many different things that you can do with it, from looking into the deep core of Earth to all the way to space, and you can stop anywhere in between,” she said. “You can do it as a scientist or you can do it as a field engineer, or you can look for resources and try to do it in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way. Or you can do basic science and come up with a next big breakthrough that will make us understand better our world.”
Opening up the data
Through the course of her career, Pérez-Campos has embraced the opportunity to both improve the lives of Mexico’s citizens and guide seismological research.
When she started, research institutions had maintained a closed-data policy, meaning scientific information could be withheld from others, both within and outside of Mexico. Some authorities support this policy because they believe keeping data private makes Mexico’s researchers more competitive in discovering new findings, she said.
But Pérez-Campos is thinking bigger than Mexico and beyond just the research. As a citizen, she wants to get answers very fast, no matter where they come from, she said.
“I believe that if we open the data, we’ll become more competitive,” she said. “It’s not that we’ll lose our competition – on the contrary, it makes us better and faster at what we do instead of having extra time to do our research slowly.”
Pérez-Campos has managed to open one set of seismic data – though she was met by plenty of resistance along the way. And like her childhood goal of working for the SSN, she intends to see the project through.
“Now it’s open but it’s delayed, but I’m getting there,” she said. “I’m still fighting for tomorrow.”
Pérez-Campos lives in Mexico City with her husband, Raul, and two rescue dogs. She enjoys knitting, going to the movies, and running “very slow” marathons. Pérez-Campos received Stanford Earth’s 2019 Early- to Mid-Career Award, an honor presented annually to alumni who have earned a degree within the past 20 years and made significant contributions to civil, government, business, or academic communities.