Scripps Student Spotlight: Drake Singleton

Geophysics graduate student conducts research to understand earthquakes and active faults in Southern California

Drake Singleton just finished his fourth year in the Geophysics Earthquake Science and Applied Geophysics Joint Doctoral Program between Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and San Diego State University (SDSU). He is a California native, growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles called La Cañada. Singleton attended the University of Colorado Boulder for his undergraduate studies where he received a bachelor's degree in geological sciences.

He is now researching active tectonics and paleoseismology in the lab of Jillian Maloney, an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at SDSU. Singleton’s research largely focuses on better characterizing active faults in Southern California. We chatted with Singleton to discover why he chose the joint doctoral program, what started his passion for geology, and more.


explorations now: Why did you choose the joint Scripps/SDSU program to pursue your PhD?

Drake Singleton: After spending several years outside of California for college and later working (with some skiing mixed in there), I was ready to make my way back to the West Coast and started looking for graduate programs mainly in California. Growing up in Southern California helped me to develop an early interest in earthquakes, so I applied to graduate programs that had a strong research emphasis on earthquake-related phenomena. I also liked the idea of a research project that combined a variety of geologic and geophysical methods to investigate active tectonics. The Joint Doctoral Program between Scripps and SDSU checked all the boxes and was an opportunity to work with faculty who are experts in earthquakes and their effects. It was a pretty easy decision to apply and then enroll.


en: Are there any perks that come with being involved in both campuses?

DS: The Joint Program is similar to a regular Scripps PhD. The first year consists of coursework and a departmental exam at Scripps, the second and third year involve crafting a research project and qualifying, and the fourth and fifth year are a mad dash to finish up the thesis. What I find really beneficial about the joint program is the opportunity to work with the two groups of faculty at Scripps and SDSU. Both universities are core institutions of the Southern California Earthquake Center, which allowed for frequent collaboration prior to the joint program. But now, through the joint program, it is possible for students to combine the research strengths of both institutions into what feels like a really unique program. Having access to the resources and expertise at both institutions has allowed me to work on projects that would have been difficult to carry out at one department alone.


en: What are you researching?

DS: Most of the projects I am involved in revolve around better characterizing active faults in Southern California. While I am fortunate enough to have worked on projects across Southern California and the northern Baja California Peninsula, the main focus of my thesis is the Rose Canyon fault zone here in San Diego. Despite its close proximity to the city of San Diego—the fault is just offshore from Scripps and lies beneath most of downtown San Diego—there are some important gaps in our understanding of how this fault behaves. One of the first projects I worked on centered on the interpretation of the late-Holocene earthquake history of the Rose Canyon fault zone. To do this, we opened a large trench perpendicular to the surface expression of the Rose Canyon fault in Old Town and used the sediments exposed in the trench wall to document evidence for past earthquakes on the fault. Moving forward, we’re hoping to get a better understanding of how fast the Rose Canyon fault is moving at depth by measuring surface velocities with GPS. We are also working on resolving the fault geometry beneath the southern portion of San Diego Bay with high-resolution and legacy seismic reflection data.


en: How did you become interested in this field?

DS: My family went camping a lot when I was younger, which was a great opportunity for me to develop an appreciation for the landscapes of the western United States. In addition to these family trips, my childhood in Los Angeles meant living through a few earthquakes and experiencing the power and energy that earthquakes release. I think these experiences helped my interest in geology progress from high school to an undergraduate degree. In college, all of this came together when my geomorphology professor introduced me to the idea of using landforms and surface processes to understand the mechanics and behavior of active faults.


en: What’s it like being in the joint program?

DS: Really, the joint program is a lot like any other earth sciences PhD program. A typical day usually involves me sitting in front of my computer answering emails, working on a dataset, or planning future fieldwork. Scripps students are also lucky that the typical day often involves surfing, swimming, or playing soccer on the beach.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

DS: I get pretty excited at the beginning of a project when I’m in the field collecting new data and I don’t know how the results are going to turn out. Whether it is heading into a newly opened paleoseismic trench and finding evidence for prehistoric earthquakes or imaging faults in San Diego Bay, the anticipation and reward of collecting new data that lead to good results is a lot of fun, kind of like opening a geo-Christmas present. Of course, collecting data that do not turn out so well can be kind of a bummer but that’s research.


en: Are there any role models or mentors that have helped you along the way?

DS: That’s an easy one! My mom, who has always supported me—thanks, mom! I have also been fortunate to have been mentored by a lot of great people during my career. Special thanks to my high school geology teacher and college geomorphology professor, whose enthusiasm for geology was infectious.


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

DS: A challenge that is sort of unique to the Joint Program is maintaining working relationships at and with both institutions. During the first year of the Joint Program, students are at Scripps almost exclusively focusing on course work and the departmental after that students typically will spend time at one or the other campus depending on the their current project. It can be easy for Joint Program students to get into a routine that works well for them at one campus and not maintain the relationships with people at the other campus.


en: What are your future plans?

DS: I really enjoy being in the field collecting data and putting the pieces of an interesting story together, so a career that would let me continue doing that is the goal.


About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

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