Dr. Estella Atekwana

Dr. Estella Atekwana

Info & Affiliations

Dean, College of Letters and Sciences
University of California, Davis

Ph.D., Geophysics, Dalhousie University, 1991
M.S., Geology, Howard University, 1986
B.S., Geology, Howard University, 1983, magna cum laude

GSA Fellow (2016)
Society of Exploration Geophysics Outstanding Educator Award (2016)
Association of Women Geoscientists Outstanding Educator (2019)
Society of Exploration Geophysicists Virtual Near Surface Global Lecturer (2020)

Estella Atekwana

Dr. Estella Atekwana grew up in Cameroon, where as a little girl a teacher once told her that geology was not for girls. She took that as a challenge. Today, Estella is an internationally-recognized research powerhouse and a pioneer of geobiology with well over a hundred publications in geology, geophysics, and environmental microbiology journals; thousands of citations; some $10M in research grants; and a CV that would quickly run your printer out of ink. She has given numerous keynote lectures at national and international conferences and departmental seminars across the globe.

Estella is best known for being one of the founders of the field of biogeophysics, which uses the tools of geophysics to investigate interactions of microbes and geological materials, particularly in subsurface environments.

In a classic story illustrating the importance of cross-disciplinary conversations to the field of geobiology, she credits the origins of biogeophysics to a serendipitous experience in the field. In the early 1990’s, Estella was a member of a team investigating the geophysical signatures of hydrocarbon-contaminated environments, part of an effort to clean up contaminated Air Force base sites. Scientists at the time expected to find an electrically resistive signature typical of economic hydrocarbon reservoirs (i.e., reflective bright spots in ground penetrating radar). Instead, studies kept finding signal attenuation. During one investigation at the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan, Estella’s group found that the contaminated ground was electrically conductive. Scratching their heads, they struck up a conversation with EPA geomicrobiologists working at the site, and sat down together to pour over the data both groups were getting. What they ultimately deduced was that hydrocarbon-degrading microbes were producing CO2 and organic acids that were leaching ions from surrounding subsurface materials into groundwater, thereby increasing the electrical conductivity of the hydrocarbon-contaminated ground. Estella realized then that geophysical tools could be used to investigate subsurface microbial communities, and biogeophysics was born.

Since then, she and her students have worked on geobiology topics as diverse as biofilm growth and development, bacterial nanowires, subsurface microbially-mediated iron redox cycles and mineralization, geobatteries, microbial processes in porous media, and oil spill bioremediation. She also continues to be active in more traditional geophysics, with several recent publications on the Malawi and Okavango Rift Zones. One application of biogeophysics that she is particularly excited about is its use to search for subsurface life in deep ocean basins and on other planets.

As an educator, Estella has mentored several dozen graduate students and postdocs, and some 70+ undergraduates, many of whom have since received PhDs from top-tier graduate programs. Her CV includes a long list of papers with student first authors, as well as the many “best poster” and “best paper” awards her students have received. She has been recognized for her teaching, mentoring, and extensive efforts in geoscience diversity and international capacity-building with awards from Missouri S&T, Oklahoma State, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, and the Association of Women Geoscientists.

Estella emphasizes the power of cross-disciplinary conversations and collaborations in her advice to young scientists. She also admonishes all of us, as scientists, to be intellectually fearless when confronted with new problems. “Determine what skill sets you have that you can bring to the table and work with other people to solve the problems… While we are all experts in our particular areas, do not be afraid to venture out.”

Estella and her husband, geochemist Dr. Eliot Atekwana, have three children and a lot of stories and advice about navigating academia as a dual-career couple.


Highlighted works:

Mellage, A., Pronk, G.J., Milojevic, T., Endres, A.L., Atekwana, E.A., Furman, A., Rezanezhad, R., and Van Cappellen, P., 2019, Bacterial Stern layer diffusion: Experimental determination with spectral induced polarization (SIP) and sensitivity to nitrite toxicity: Near Surface Geophysics, v.17, p. 623–635, doi:10.1002/nsg.1

Atekwana, E.A., Mewafy, F.M., Abdel Aal, G., Werkema Jr., D.D., Revil, A., and Slater, L.D., 2014, High-resolution magnetic susceptibility measurements for investigating magnetic mineral formation during microbial mediated iron reduction: Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences, v. 119, p. 80–94, doi:10.1002/2013JG002414.

Atekwana, E.A., and Slater, L.D., 2009, Biogeophysics: A new frontier in Earth science research: Reviews of Geophysics, v. 47, p. RG4004, doi:10.1029/2009RG000285.

Atekwana, E.A., and Atekwana, E.A., 2009, Geophysical signatures of microbial activity at hydrocarbon contaminated sites: a review: Surveys in Geophysics, v. 31, p. 247–283, doi:10.1007/s10712-009-9089-8.

Allen, J.P., Atekwana, E.A., Atekwana, E.A., Duris, J.W., Werkema, D.D., and Rossbach, S., 2007, The microbial community structure in petroleum-contaminated sediments corresponds to geophysical signatures: Applied and Environmental Microbiology, v. 73, p. 2860–2870, doi:10.1128/AEM.01752-06.

Atekwana, E.A., Sauk, W.A., and Werkema Jr., D.D., 2000, Investigations of geoelectrical signatures at a hydrocarbon contaminated site: Journal of Applied Geophysics, v. 44, p. 167–180, doi:10.1016/S0926-9851(98)00033-0.




SEG Seismic Soundoff Podcast: Developing biogeophysics and the search for life with Estella Atekwana (24:47)


biogeophysics, deep biosphere, geomicrobiology, women of geobiology, black geobiologists, African geobiologists, outstanding educators, distinguished career, family life, dual-career couples

Bio written by Carie Frantz, June 2020