Estella Atekwana

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Estella Atekwana
Latest company Oklahoma State University
Membership American Geophysical Union, European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers, Geological Society of America , Geochemical Society, Environmental and Engineering Geophysical Society, Society of Exploration Geophysicists, National Association of Black Geologists and Geophysicists, Botswana Geoscientists Association
BSc Geology (magnum cum laude)
MSc Geology
PhD Geophysics
BSc university Howard University
MSc university Howard University
PhD university Dalhousie University

Estella Atekwana received a BS in Geology (magnum cum laude) from Howard University (1983), an MS in geology from Howard University (1986), and a PhD in geophysics in 1991 from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She is currently the Dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware. Before joining the University of Delaware in 2017, she was Regents Professor, Head, and Sun Chair Professor of the Boone Pickens School of Geology at Oklahoma State University. She was previously a Professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, Indiana University–Purdue University, and Western Michigan University. She was a visiting Professor at the University of Botswana in 1999.ity.

Her research uses geophysical methodologies to investigate geologic processes spanning the near to deep subsurface and from the micron to lithospheric scale. She is internationally recognized for her pioneering and interdisciplinary work on biogeophysics which has won numerous best paper awards at international conferences. Her biogeophysics research focuses on investigating the interaction between microorganisms and subsurface geologic media and the application of this knowledge to bioremediation optimization, oil exploration, and as a proxy for biogeochemical processes. Her tectonophysics studies have included integrated geophysical imaging of lithospheric and upper mantle structures to understand the geodynamic processes of continental rift initiation and how preexisting Precambrian structures modulate strain localization leading to faulting and generation of earthquakes. Atekwana has conducted international field-based research in several countries including Botswana, Cameroon, Egypt, Malawi, Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda, and Zambia with her students.

Atekwana has been the lead principal investigator of many research projects funded by federal agencies and private companies. She has received several awards including the 2019 Association for Women Geoscientists Outstanding Educator and the 2016 Society of Exploration Geophysicists Outstanding Educator award. She was inducted an Honorary Member of Phi Beta Delta, the Honor Society for International Scholars, and International Golden Key Honor Society. She has been convener of several workshops and special sessions and an invited speaker at international conferences and research institutions.


University Awards

  • 2015 Eminent Faculty Award - Oklahoma State University
  • 2010-2011 Regents Distinguished Research Award - Oklahoma State University
  • 2008-09 International Education Faculty Excellence Award - Oklahoma State University
  • Faculty Excellence Award - University of Missouri-Rolla 2005
  • Outstanding Academic Advisor Award- University of Missouri-Rolla 2004/05

Professional Society Awards

  • 2021 SEG Reginald Fessenden Award
  • 2016 SEG Outstanding Educator Award
  • 2006 Honorable Mention (Geophysics)

Professional Organizations and Affiliations

  • American Geophysical Union
  • European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers
  • Geological Society of America
  • Geochemical Society
  • Environmental and Engineering Geophysical Society
  • Society of Exploration Geophysicists
  • National Association of Black Geologists and Geophysicists
  • Botswana Geoscientists Association

2020 SEG Virtual Near-Surface Global Lecturer

Biogeophysics: Exploring Earth’s subsurface biosphere using geophysical approaches

Microorganisms are found in almost every conceivable niche of the Earth from hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean basins to the cold subglacial lakes of ice sheets. As such, microorganisms have played an important role in transforming Earth systems (e.g., accelerating mineral weathering), global climate change, and mediating different biogeochemical cycles over most of Earth’s 4 billion history. In-situ microbial-rock interactions are dynamic and occur at both temporal and spatial scales that prove difficult to investigate at resolutions needed to fully understand them, thus necessitating the need for the development of noninvasive tools/sensors to interrogate these processes. Interestingly, these microbial-rock interactions modulate changes in physical properties in the rocks, generating measurable geophysical signatures that can be recorded with conventional geophysical sensors (e.g., seismic, magnetics, electromagnetics). The recognition of these microbial-catalyzed changes in geophysical signatures resulted in the development of biogeophysics: the study of the physical changes in earth materials catalyzed by microorganisms. In this presentation, I will provide examples of how geophysical tools are used to sense subsurface microbial activity, from cell growth and biofilm formation to biomineralization and biogeochemical cycling of metals to the monitoring of bioremediation and their use for investigating oilfield microbial processes and the search for life on other planets. Challenges and limitations also will be highlighted, and potential for future advancements in the field will be discussed.

Additional Resources

A recording of the lecture is available.[1]

Listen to Estella discuss her lecture in Developing biogeophysics and the search for life with Estella Atekwana, Episode 79[2] of Seismic Soundoff, in-depth conversations in applied geophysics.

The 2021 SEG Reginald Fessenden Award [3]

Estella Atekwana is honored for her visionary role as the key originator of an exciting new field of geophysics research in earth sciences known as “biogeophysics.” She has opened a new field of laboratory-based studies to better understand acoustic, magnetic, and electrical property changes due to microbial growth and biofilm formation in porous media. She has conducted numerous studies of multiple bio-alterations and their geophysical signature resulting in a new understanding of predictions from applied geophysical techniques.

As the near-surface community of applied geophysics expanded its use of geophysical tools to predict the subsurface, there were many unexpected and unpredicted surprises. Atekwana's work in biogeophysics has been a significant contribution to solving many of these mysteries where the actual geophysical signature is explained by biological chemical alterations. Biogeophysics is fundamental to understanding the underlying processes and interactions between microorganisms and subsurface geologic media. The knowledge of the resulting geophysical signatures is vital in applications to understanding contaminated land, oil spills, bioremediation optimization, oil and gas exploration, and enhanced oil recovery. Professor Atekwana's biogeophysics research also has exciting potential in the geophysical search for life in extreme environments — including other planets.

Atekwana is widely recognized as the pioneer of this new field and has published more than 120 abstracts and papers. She has an extensive international presence in conferences, forums, and workshops and has been the SEG 2020 Virtual Near Surface Global Lecturer. The importance of her work has been recognized with several funded projects ranging from federal (the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy), UNESCO, and the industry. SEG is pleased to recognize Atekwana for this valuable technology breakthrough.

Biography Citation for the 2021 SEG Reginald Fessenden Award

by Manika Prasad and Lee Slater

Estella A. Atekwana earned her PhD in geophysics at Dalhousie University in 1991. She immediately joined Western Michigan University as an assistant professor and seeded what would be a remarkably successful program of research in innovative environmental geophysics. In 2001, she joined the Missouri University of Science and Technology as an associate professor. In 2006, she was appointed the Sun Company Clyde Wheeler Endowed Chair Professor in the Boone Pickens School of Geology (BPSG) at Oklahoma State University. She was subsequently appointed as a Regents' Distinguished Professor in 2011. Her remarkable administrative talents saw her appointed head of BPSG in 2013, until taking up the position of dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware in 2017.

We are honored to introduce Estella as the recipient of the 2021 SEG Reginald Fessenden Award. Estella is a true visionary within the geophysics community, being the key originator of an exciting new field of geophysics research in the earth sciences known as biogeophysics. This groundbreaking conceptual advancement in geophysics has inspired a generation of near-surface geophysicists to rethink their basic understanding of the origins of geophysical signals in the near-surface earth. Indeed, there is no comparable conceptual advancement in the field of near-surface geophysics with such broad implications for interdisciplinary studies of the near-surface earth, along with extreme environments on earth and possibly beyond.

Biogeophysics is the new frontier in geophysics research that explores the geophysical signatures resulting from microbial processes in the subsurface, having major relevance to many pressing questions in the geosciences, spanning from origins of life to fate of contaminants. Estella's early work in the 1990s on geophysical signatures of biodegrading hydrocarbon spills catalyzed research in this new field. She solved the apparent paradox of high electrical conductivity anomalies over hydrocarbon (a resistive fluid) spills through careful laboratory research coupled to innovative field-scale studies. We now know that microbial degradation gradually transforms resistive, immature hydrocarbon spills into mature electrical conductive plumes. Estella developed robust conceptual models describing this evolution of geophysical signals over hydrocarbon spills in terms of the complex biogeochemical processes involved in hydrocarbon degradation. Her conceptual framework has formed the foundation for a wide range of subsequent studies by an interdisciplinary and international group of researchers.

Estella went on to recognize that myriad other biogeochemical processes cause hitherto unidentified geophysics signatures. She creatively expanded her experiments to consider the seismic, electrical, and magnetic signals arising from microbial cell growth, biofilm formation, and biomineralization. Examples of this research include seismic velocity and induced polarization signatures of biofilm growth, magnetic susceptibility variations due to iron mineral transformations associated with hydrocarbon degradation, and self-potential signals generated by biogeobatteries where microbes facilitate electron transport across sharp redox gradients. These examples highlight the innovative and unique nature of her research, having appeared in high-ranking earth science journals including Reviews of Geophysics, Geophysics, Journal of Geophysical Research, Water Resources Research, and Geophysical Research Letters. Today, the field of biogeophysics is well established as is evident from a number of review papers, including a definitive paper in the prestigious journal Reviews of Geophysics with Estella as lead author. This advancement would not be possible without Estella's revolutionary and formative ideas, pioneering research, and her dedication to develop the field of biogeophysics.

Estella is also remarkable in that, beyond biogeophysics, she has led an internationally recognized research program on the tectonics of Sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, she has long been committed to mentoring early-career scientists and students. Lastly, as a long-time champion of underrepresented minorities in the geosciences, it is her voice we hear loudest and most passionately in response to the desperate need to enhance opportunities for underrepresented minorities in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement.

We therefore honor Estella with the Reginald Fessenden Award for her remarkable vision and pursuit of hitherto unrecognized biogeophysical signals, her commitment to early-career scientists, and her advocacy for underrepresented minorities in the geosciences.

SEG Outstanding Educator Award 2016 [4]

Estella A. Atekwana is a natural leader and educator. She has served as an inspiration for many years in her demeanor and her connection with students. She has a passion not only for motivating her students to learn, but also for teaching them how to learn and doing so in a manner that is relevant, meaningful, and memorable. Atekwana has strived to promote training and professional development opportunities for students, particularly in the area of field research. Her mentorship skills in the field are very impressive, resulting in a professional, nurturing relationship with her students.

Biography Citation for the SEG Outstanding Educator Award 2016

By Eve Sprunt

Estella Atekwana is a regents’ professor, Sun Company Clyde Wheeler Endowed Chair Professor, and head of the Boone Pickens School of Geology at Oklahoma State University (OSU). Prior to joining OSU in 2006, Estella served on the department of geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering faculty at the Missouri University of Science & Technology from 2001–2006; on the department of geosciences faculty at the Western Michigan University from 1990–2001; and as a visiting professor at the University of Botswana in 1999. She received her PhD from Dalhousie University and her MS and BS from Howard University.

"Estella Atekwana, 2016"

Mentoring students has been Estella’s passion. She has advised 34 graduate students and four postdoctoral fellows. One way to judge an educator is by his or her impact on students. Over a 13-year period, Estella’s students won Best Paper and/or Best Poster awards 10 times at national conferences. Estella has demonstrated to her students that if they believe in themselves, there is nothing they cannot achieve.

Among the many students that Estella inspired was Dale Werkema of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. “As an instructor, Estella presented complex information in an organized and systematic manner and challenged her students through projects, field experiments, laboratory experiments, presentations, and exams,” Werkema said. “For instance, after lecturing on refraction seismic processing, she would hand out field seismographs for in-class by-hand processing exercises. These types of immediate, active concept reinforcing techniques were extremely successful and commonplace in her classes. While I was her teaching assistant, Estella modeled classroom management and student-centered learning by allowing me to teach and by demonstrating how to successfully manage a course through the delegation of duties and authority. By giving me the opportunity to teach, she challenged my understanding of concepts and mentored my teaching.” Another former student, Kelsey Bufford, wrote that Estella, “champions promotion of geosciences as a profession to minorities, especially female minorities who are severely underrepresented in the field of geology. … She has made a lasting impression on my life and will continue to do the same for all students, faculty, and professionals who have the opportunity to work with her.”

Estella received the 2015 Eminent Faculty Award at OSU, which is presented annually to one person to recognize the highest level of scholarly achievement at OSU. She was recognized for research in two different areas of geophysics: near-surface geophysics with focus on biogeophysics and tectonics of incipient rift systems.

Werkema also wrote that, “Estella is one of the leaders in biogeophysics. … She has gathered together specialists in geophysics, geochemistry, biology, and chemistry to understand the biogeochemical interactions occurring at contaminated sites, which effect physical changes and the resulting geophysical properties of these contaminated areas. … Estella's success and national recognition in this research is a direct indication of her drive to expand the science, to challenge the status quo, and to manage multidisciplinary groups of scientists. This ability to manage and administer a group of multidisciplinary scientists is one of Estella's keys to success as a professor and a leader in her field.”

Estella’s rift tectonics research brought to light the importance of studying incipient continental rifts to understand rift initiation. Over the last decade, she has used her rift research to provide international field experience to U.S. students while building capacity in countries such as Botswana, Cameroon, Egypt, Malawi, Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda, and Zambia. In 2009, she received OSU’s International Education Faculty Excellence Award.

Estella’s work illustrates the tremendous value of geophysics in other applications beyond hydrocarbon exploration.

"Estella Atekwana, 2006"

Honorable Mention (Geophysics) 2006

Gamal Abdel Aal, Lee Slater, and Estella Atekwana received 2006 Honorable Mention (Geophysics) for their paper Induced polarization measurements on unconsolidated sediments from a site of active hydrocarbon biodegradation.[5]


  3. 2021. Honors and Awards. The Leading Edge 40(11), 786–864.
  4. SEG Honors and Awards Ceremony , SEG Dallas 18 October 2016, Omni Dallas Hotel, Dallas Ballroom, International Exposition and Eighty-Sixth Annual Meeting, Dallas, Tx, p, 7.
  5. Aal, G. A., L. Slater, and E. Atekwana (2006) Induced polarization measurements on unconsolidated sediments from a site of active hydrocarbon biodegradation, Geophysics Vol. 71, No. 2, pp. H13-H24.

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Estella Atekwana
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