New Faculty: Professor Susan Kieffer

Posted on 08.23.2015

The Department of Geology is pleased to announce that Dr. Susan Werner Kieffer has been hired as Walgreen Chair and Professor of Geology at the University of Illinois. She is the first to hold this prestigious position.

Kieffer, who describes her primary research interest as geological fluid dynamics, has had a widely varied research career. She developed a theory for predicting the thermodynamic properties of minerals, work that earned her the Mineralogical Society of America's Award for distinguished work in mineralogy. Later, she started to look at geysers as analogs for volcanoes. When geysers were discovered on Jupiter's satellite, Io, she applied her earthbound research to interpret those phenomena. For many years, Kieffer studied rapids on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. She has also s

tudied the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and developed a theory of the devastating lateral blast.

"I had to teach myself rocket nozzle theory to explain the tree-blow-down pattern that we observed at the mountain," says Kieffer.

More recently, she has focused on the 65-million-year-old Chicxulub (Mexico) impact crater and the 1.8 billion-year-old Sudbury (Canada) crater. Using shock-wave theory, Kieffer and colleagues hypothesize that the former was formed by an asteroid impact and the latter a comet. All these projects involve understanding processes that can occur at very high speeds - sometimes even supersonic - compared to most geological processes.

"My geologic interests parallel my music interests," Kieffer has said. "When I had to practice as a kid, I skipped the slow movements and went right for the scherzos."

Culminating with a Ph.D. from Cal Tech, Kieffer's holds degrees in physics, math, geological sciences, and planetary sciences. This background gives her the technical background to pursue any question that caught her eye. While those questions may appear to others to be unrelated to what she's been working on, there's usually a unifying thread. "My career could be summarized by saying I look at complex and catastrophic events. When I visited Urbana-Champaign, the possibility for interactions among geology and several other campus departments was wonderful," says Kieffer. "The strength of the whole campus was very attractive to me."

Kieffer's professional accomplishments are reflected in part by her various high-level honors and achievements. For example, she is a recipient of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (the prestigious "genius award"), a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a recipient of the Spendiarov Award from the USSR Academy of Sciences (the second American ever to receive this honor), and recipient of the Day Medal from the Geological Society of America. Over the years, Kieffer has served several institutions including the U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona State University, Cal Tech, and the University of British Columbia. Just prior to coming to Illinois, she ran her own consulting firm in Canada, S.W. Kieffer Science Consulting, Inc., to develop nonlinear data analysis and prediction techniques. She also has founded the Phoenix-based Kieffer Institute for Development of Science-Based Education, which focused on teaching science to at-risk 7th to 12th graders.

Recently, Kieffer has been concerned about issues of sustainability and the role of earth sciences and earth scientists in getting our planet through the next 50 years in a healthy condition. She hopes to teach a course in this area. "We scientists tend to be relatively ineffective politically," says Kieffer, "so I was thrilled when asked to become an Affiliate in the Institute for Government and Policy Affairs on this campus. We are discussing how we can bring issues of natural sciences to the table with lawyers, political scientists, economists, and social scientists."

Kieffer's passion for research and teaching will benefit our students and the university community as a whole. The Department is delighted to welcome Susan and her husband, Charles Harwood, to the Urbana-Champaign community.