After 34 years as a member of the faculty at Rice University, William W. Symes, a pioneer in the mathematics of seismic imaging, has retired, as of July 1.
Symes remains the Noah Harding Professor Emeritus and Research Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics (CAAM). He earned an A.B. in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1971 and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1975.
Before joining the Rice faculty in 1983, Symes taught at the University of British Columbia and at Michigan State University, and held visiting positions at the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University and the Université de Paris IX.
Among his recent honors are the Desiderius Erasmus Award from the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers in 2015 and the Geosciences Career Award from the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in 2011. He was made a fellow of the Institute of Physics in 2011 and of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in 2009.
According to Google Scholar, Symes’ papers have been cited more than 8,200 times. Much of his research has focused on the use of seismic waves to detect geologic structures beneath the earth’s surface. Because such waves vary in speed and direction, depending on the physical properties of the materials they pass through, remote recordings of the waves can encode information about earth structure.
Geophysicists, mathematicians, and other scientists have devised computational models to decode this information. Inference of the speed of waves is a central task, as wave speed controls the relation between features in time-series data and positions of the related structures in the earth. Much of Symes’ research has concerned estimation of wave speed.
In 1992, Symes founded The Rice Inversion Project (TRIP), an industrial research consortium sponsored by companies in the oil and computer industries, to promote research in modeling and inversion for seismic exploration, and for environmental and engineering geophysics, crustal studies and ocean acoustics. As a key part of its mission, TRIP also supported the studies of more than forty M.A., Ph.D. and postdoctoral students.
“Because of Bill’s example, many of us did ultimately go into academia”, said Susan Minkoff, professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Texas, Dallas, who earned her Ph.D. in CAAM from Rice in 1995. Symes was her doctoral adviser.
“I find that the ultimate compliment anyone can pay me is to say I’m a good adviser because I try hard just to be a little bit like Bill as a research adviser. I know I never succeed in all the ways he did with us, but that’s my goal — to be as good an adviser to my students as he was to us.”
“I still work on a subject that is very close to my Ph.D. thesis topic, so Bill has influenced my career heavily,” said Rami Nammour, who earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in CAAM from Rice in 2009 and 2011, respectively, and now works for Total E&P USA, Inc. in Houston.
“At the beginning of my Ph.D. work,” Nammour said, “he would mentor me closely, correct misconceptions and fill holes. Later, he gave me plenty of space to become independent and established. I took it that he trusted in my readiness and my independence.”
Minkoff added, “I often thought there should be more awards given for truly great advisers because the apprenticeship of training someone to be a professional mathematician is as much teaching as being in a classroom lecturing at the board. It’s harder and more all-encompassing. You have to care about how their lives turn out as a long-haul commitment if you are doing it right. I wrote in my Ph.D. thesis acknowledgements that Bill made work fun, and that pretty much sums it up.”