Jie Zhang Ph.D. '97 (XII) and Arthur Cheng Sc.D. '78 (XII)

The oil crisis of the 1970’s brought home to Professor M. Nafi Toksöz the importance of the growing global energy demand and the energy security of the United States. “I felt that MIT should and could play an important role,” Toksöz said. This led the geophysicist to launch the Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL) in 1982. “It was important to have a focused center,” he said.

The laboratory develops techniques for subsurface imaging and characterization, and applies these to resource development, including oil and gas, water, geothermal energy, and waste repositories. (See “Finding Energy Solutions through Seismic Imaging” in the Summer 2010 issue for a description of current research at ERL.)

To honor Toksöz, the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) has established the M. Nafi Toksöz Fellowship Fund. The graduate fellowship will continue Toksöz’s legacy of nurturing young researchers.
Over the years, Toksöz and ERL have had a far-reaching influence on applied geophysics, and Toksöz’s former students include a “who’s who” of leaders in the field in both industry and academia.

Here are just a few of the leaders who studied with Toksöz: Wafik Beydoun, President and CEO of Total E&P Research & Technology USA; Daniel Burns, Executive Director of ERL; Arthur Cheng, Chief Scientific Advisor -Acoustic/Seismic at Halliburton; Wenjie Dong, Advanced Capabilities Coordinator at ExxonMobil Exploration; David Johnston, Global Geophysics Coordinator at ExxonMobil Production Company; Chengbin “Chuck” Peng, Founder of Nexus Geosciences; Norman Sleep, Professor of Geophysics and, by courtesy, of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University; Rob Stewart, Director of the Allied Geophysical Laboratory at the University of Houston; Ken Tubman, General Manager of Subsurface Technology at ConocoPhillips; and Jie Zhang, Professor of Geophysics and Director of the Geophysical Research Institute at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) and Founder and Chairman of GeoTomo.

From ERL’s beginning Toksöz forged relationships with industry. At the time, academic opportunities for new geophysics Ph.D.’s and federal funding for geophysics research were diminishing, said Toksöz. Industry provided career opportunities for graduates and funding for research. And MIT’s stature gave companies greater confidence for investing in ERL research, he said.

MIT is a good home for ERL because students, courses, and research projects are not confined to individual departments. “The boundaries are porous and encourage inter-departmental collaboration,” said Toksöz.

Mentor and Role Model

Toksöz’s wide-ranging interests set him apart from other leading academics in the field of applied geophysics, said Halliburton’s Cheng. “And that is reflected in the kinds of careers his students have ended up with,” he said. “He trained them to not just have depth but also breadth, so when they got into industry they were able to handle a large range of problems.”

Toksöz encouraged students to pursue interesting problems in seismology and helped them secure funding for their research, according to Cheng and USTC’s Zhang. “He also helped me and other students find opportunities to work with industry and government agencies during our student careers,” said Zhang.

Toksöz was born in the seismically active country of Turkey. He earned his undergraduate degree in geophysics at the Colorado School of Mines in 1958 and received his doctorate under the tutelage of renowned geophysicist Frank Press at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1963. Toksöz’s early research interests included earthquake seismology, plate tectonics, and the structures of planetary bodies. He worked on the Apollo program, guiding the deployment of the seismic sensor network on the moon.

Toksöz developed models of wave propagation in heterogeneous media, helped define the field of borehole acoustic logging, and advanced vertical seismic profiling (VSP) and cross-well seismology. Toksöz was awarded the Seismological Society of America’s Harry Fielding Reid Medal in 2006 and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists’ Maurice Ewing Medal in 2010. Toksöz retired from MIT in 2009 as the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Geophysics after 44 years on the faculty.

Zhang aims to replicate the broad-minded research and heartfelt mentorship Toksöz brought to ERL at USTC’s Geophysical Research Institute. “Today, as a professor and the head of a geophysics program in China, I realize how difficult it is to create such an environment,” said Zhang. USTC is establishing a professorship to honor Toksöz.

Given the large number of successful students Toksöz has had over the years, ERL alumni feel that a graduate student fellowship named after him is appropriate, said Cheng. “It reminds all of us that students are the main ‘product’ of MIT,” he said. Fellowships are especially important as a recruiting tool for first-year students, giving them breathing room to explore research interests and complete course requirements. In just a few months, the fellowship fund has received more than $300,000 en route to a goal of $1 million, which will support one student for one year forever. “In addition to honoring Nafi, an endowed fellowship will help ensure that EAPS remains a world leader in geophysics,” adds Zhang.

Cheng adds, “even greater than his scientific achievements is Nafi’s work as a supportive advisor to more than 100 graduate students and research associates. In addition to his scientific guidance, Nafi has always taken a keen interest in nurturing the careers of his students and being a constant and supportive mentor throughout their lives and careers.”

Toksöz’s influence was also felt at MIT’s Baker House, where he was a housemaster from 1969 to 1980. During his 11 years there, Toksöz mentored hundreds of undergraduates, helping them adjust and thrive at MIT.

If you would like to give to this fellowship fund, please visit giving.mit.edu and enter the M. Nafi Toksöz Fellowship fund number 3311750 in the “search designations” box. Gifts in any amount are appreciated.