Putting Boots on the Ground

From left, Kerstin Witte Lien ’97, Barbara Faulkner ’74 and Suzanne Kairo ’83.

From left, Kerstin Witte Lien ’97, Barbara Faulkner ’74 and Suzanne Kairo ’83. Photo by Joe O'Neill.


by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson; video by Joe O'Neill

A geology career was not in the plan during Suzanne’s sophomore year at Dickinson when she signed up for two geology classes to fulfill her lab-science requirement. But after a year of coursework with now retired Earth Sciences Professor Jeffrey Niemitz, she set a new course.

Today, Suzanne is a research geologist at ExxonMobil with an M.S. from Purdue University, a Ph.D. from Indiana University-Bloomington and a passion for conservation and earth science literacy. Looking back on the impact Niemitz made on her career, she recently established a student research fund at Dickinson that, with support from her employer and fellow Dickinsonians, helps students with similar passions conduct meaningful global research.

The Jeffrey Niemitz Endowed Student Research Fund is awarded by Dickinson’s Center for Sustainability Education to a student researcher investigating the sustainable use of natural resources in disadvantaged communities around the world.

“Jeffrey reminds me that finding solutions to living with and managing the effects of climate change may be the single most important challenge for sustaining a humanistic quality of life for communities around the globe,” says Suzanne, a longtime Dickinson volunteer who has supported student research, student awards, and geoscience field studies.

The research fund, she explains, provides an opportunity to address this critical need. It helps promising student-researchers “put boots on the ground” and empower communities to develop sustainable solutions that address the physical and economic challenges of a rapidly changing world—a cause that Niemitz, who has worked in underserved communities in Africa and South America, has long championed.

The research fund also brings Suzanne together with two fellow alumnae working in the earth sciences, fellow Exxon geologist Barbara Faulkner ’74 and Kerstin Witte Lien ’97, a senior exploration geologist and senior technology advisor at Mobil Producing Nigeria, one of Exxon’s three Nigerian subsidiaries.

Looking for a way to make an even bigger impact, the three leveraged ExxonMobil’s matching-gift program for a 3-to-1 match of their personal gifts. When fully funded, the research fund is expected to generate an annual grant of at least $5,000.

That kind of intensive educational experience is important, says Barbara. “I’m very pleased to support student research that has the potential to make a positive impact in global communities,” she adds. “It’s really important for undergrads to have that experience in conducting their own research on subject matter that’s important not only from a scientific point of view, but also to help humankind.”

Suzanne, who says that she envisions “a world where living sustainably is status quo, rather than the hope for tomorrow,” couldn’t agree more. She says that Dickinson’s science students, armed with both deep scientific knowledge and a liberal-arts background, are well poised to usher in that new age, as they apply scientific methods to public policy related to sustainability.

“It is an amazing process of discovery and exploration that is fostered at Dickinson every day, thanks to Dickinson’s commitment to the liberal arts,” says Suzanne. “My life and career as a geologist would not have been possible without the welcoming, inclusive atmosphere of the geology department and the liberal-arts philosophy of Dickinson College.”

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Published March 23, 2017