Janis Hernandez of the California Geological Survey (CGS) was recently awarded 2019 Alumna of the Year by the California State University, Fullerton Geology Department.
Hernandez’s professional experience includes geologic mapping, fault and landslide investigations, groundwater well construction management, and geophysical studies.
In her tenure at CGS, she has worked on Seismic Hazard Zone mapping, geologic mapping, and geologic reviews of school sites for the Division of the State Architect.
She was also part of the team of scientists mapping inundation after the devastating January 2018 debris flows in the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito.
“I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things – many of them very different, but they all build on one another and make you a more well-rounded scientist,” Hernandez said. “The work is fascinating, but the people you get to work with make it even more interesting.”
One project that sticks out as “pretty amazing” was working with USGS on studies of the faults running under Los Angeles.
In 2017, a group that included Hernandez and CGS’s Mike DeFrisco utilized “guided wave” and other methodology to try to determine precisely where branches of the Raymond and Hollywood faults are located and whether the faults are connected – important in knowing just how big an earthquake the fault system might unleash.
Some additional work commenced last summer on the Santa Monica and Hollywood faults, with many CGS and USGS geologists and student interns participating.
A follow-up phase of guided wave work will continue this summer, utilizing new equipment.
These studies so far have identified where Holocene faulting exists in areas where subsurface data is either lacking, sparse, or otherwise was not previously recognized.
While there clearly are many reasons CSU Fullerton would single out Hernandez for recognition, her ongoing efforts to talk to women about careers in science – most recently at a USC career fair with colleague Brian Swanson — was also a factor.
“I’ve gone back to Fullerton a couple of times to participate in career forums and at Geological Society of America meeting mentorship events,” she said.
“It’s something the students appreciate because as a woman scientist I can share that story and encourage all students to pursue their dreams of work in the geological sciences.”
Hernandez grew up in Fountain Valley, just north of Huntington Beach. She did a fair amount of camping as a kid and enjoyed poking around outdoors, but she isn’t a lifelong rock hound like some in CGS. In high school, Hernandez considered pursuing a degree in marine biology. The ocean was practically next door.
But then life happened. She got married and was working as a medical insurance claims analyst when she decided to go back to school in the hope of beginning a different career path. What, exactly, she wasn’t 100 percent sure – just something different than her desk gig.
“I was interested in science in high school but not completely consumed,” she said. “I was working on my associate degree and needed a science class, so I decided to take geology.
As soon as I took that class, I thought `something’s wrong with me – I can’t stop thinking about rocks’ … That class put it all together for me. A lot of it had to do with being outdoors, I guess.”
CSU Fullerton had the best geology program near Hernandez’s home, so she enrolled, joined the geology club, and ended up serving two terms as club president.
“The physics, chemistry, and math I needed to take scared me a bit, but I just pushed through,” Hernandez said. “It was hard at times, both academically and personally. When I was at Fullerton, my father, then my grandfather, and finally my father-in-law passed away over a span of about 18 months, so it was difficult to focus at times. When I got my degree, it was a real sense of accomplishment.”
At the time Hernandez attended CSU Fullerton, there was no master’s program. She described it as “an applied geology school,” designed to help students get into the workforce.
“It’s definitely an urban setting, so to do field work, we’d drive to the Marble Mountains in the Mojave Desert, or Death Valley, or Barstow, or go to the beach, which is much closer, to look at stratigraphy,” Hernandez said. “It was all very interesting.”
After graduating in 1995, Hernandez worked for geotechnical consulting firms in Southern California before joining CGS in 2001. A Registered Professional Geologist and Certified Engineering Geologist, she was promoted to Senior Engineering Geologist in 2018 and is the manager of CGS’ Los Angeles office.
And, yes, Alumna of the Year.
“It was unexpected, and of course I’m honored,” Hernandez said.
“I received a phone call from the former department chair, Diane Clemens-Knott, who is retiring and said she wanted to nominate me. She said she had followed my career and told me `you have my dream job.’ ”
From all of us at the Department of Conservation, congratulations, Janis!
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