Hutton received a B.S. in astronomy from Pennsylvania State University in 1971, and an M.S. (1973) and Ph.D. (1976) in astronomy from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has worked for the Caltech earthquake center as a seismologist her entire career.
After graduation, Hutton says she found astronomy jobs scarce, so switched careers. She sees the two professions as similar: "Earth is a planet, after all, so it's sort of a matter of looking down rather than looking up." Most of her job is consumed by bureaucracy and data analysis, but immediately following a major earthquake, especially in Southern California, Hutton is sought by the media for her professional commentary. Her local celebrity is such that people take note of her shopping, whether she is replacing glassware or stocking up.
Hutton sometimes appears with her United States Geological Survey colleague "Dr. Lucy" Jones, who has been appearing on television since the 1980s. According to LA Weekly, "Hutton strikes just the right balance between calm and caution" in explaining earthquake science to viewers.
Hutton was the consulting seismologist for the 1990 monster movie Tremors. The seismic theories were for once well presented, the only liberty taken for theatrical effect was that the apparent seismic response of the propagation of the fictitious creatures in the film ("graboids") was too low-frequency for the ground shaking likely to be realistically caused by the graboids.
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