VOLUME 25 #3

Current cover


an image of Dean Atekwana at coast day
Photo by Evan Krape
CEOE Dean Estella Atekwana fought the perception that females lack the ambition to succeed in science and now hopes to inspire a younger generation to pursue careers in the field.

Seeking science for
the sake of our planet

FACULTY | To Dean Estella Atekwana, UD bears a solemn role in pressing for policies that protect all people.

Estella Atekwana’s love of science was so deep that her family assumed she’d go into medicine, the profession all but decided for her in childhood. But it was a high school geology course that would “completely mesmerize” the future UD dean—and a presumptuous-but-inspiring teacher who would challenge and change her forever.

“I have so many girls in this class, and we do a lot of fieldwork,” her geology teacher lamented that first day. “You girls will just end up holding back the boys.”

“That may be so,” Atekwana replied. “But I intend to change that. I’ll be better than them.”

And she was. She outperformed her peers in every exam and became the only girl in her class to pursue a career in geoscience. Today, as dean of UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE), she reflects on that memory and laughs.

“This was 1970s West Africa. That was the attitude of the time,” she explains. “And you know, he may have been right. There were girls in my class who didn’t want to go into the fields and get dirty. I wasn’t one of them.”

Atekwana would come to the United States shortly thereafter, studying pre-med at Howard. It was only at her graduation that her parents would learn of her decision to follow her true passion of geology.

“There goes their dream of having a doctor,” Atekwana recalls. “But I promised my parents that day that there would still be a doctor in the family, and I got my Ph.D.”

Atekwana built a successful research career in biogeophysics (how microbes interact with rocks and change physical properties over time) and tectonophysics (using geophysical imaging technologies to study the structure, composition and dynamic processes of the solid Earth) and attracted a cadre of graduate students and advisees, most recently as head of the Boone Pickens School of Geology at Oklahoma State University. But she chose to move on to a deanship in the mid-Atlantic because she wanted to do more to expand the impact of the Earth sciences on students and on society. She was drawn to CEOE because of the outstanding faculty and the interdisciplinary nature of research of the faculty and students.

She began her UD career Sept. 1, with a global agenda “to do more to bring change.” Specifically, she sees the great need for science to drive the policies that protect the people and planet. In her earliest weeks on the job, for instance, the world witnessed the catastrophic damage caused by hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria. Those disasters, she says, speak to the very heart of the work done in CEOE.

“We are the ones doing the science that allows us to better understand the Earth’s systems. We must bridge the gap between what we do and the public’s understanding of it.”

As dean, Atekwana hopes to grow the college’s global footprint, increase research collaboration across UD (and across other institutions around the country and world), and perhaps most importantly, inspire a younger generation to pursue careers in the Earth, ocean and environmental sciences.

“We live and interact with the Earth,” she says. “It’s up to us to leave a planet with a future, for the future.”

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