Seymour lands NSF fellowship for geosciences research

Nikki Seymour conducting field work

Seymour’s research may help provide some answers about the age or origin of things like copper deposits in Arizona. It could also provide insight on how mountains were created in places like Colorado. Photo courtesy of Nikki Seymour

Nikki Seymour, who received a doctoral degree in geosciences from Colorado State University earlier this year, has received a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

She’ll begin her earth sciences research soon, studying a formation known as the Orocopia Schist in west-central Arizona with scientists at Stanford University and the University of California Santa Cruz. The geoscientists are trying to solve a scientific mystery, one that started for Seymour while she was studying at CSU.

The Orocopia Schist rock formation originated as a pile of sediments on the bottom of the ocean off the western coast of California. This oceanic plate descended beneath the Golden State millions of years ago, but it is now exposed at the surface in Arizona. Seymour said she will explore how the rock went beneath California and came back to the surface again in the southwest United States.

This research may help provide some answers about the age or origin of things like copper deposits in Arizona, she said. It could also provide insight on how mountains were created, since the same mechanism that brought the Orocopia Schist under California also produced the peaks along the Front Range in Colorado.

A ‘remarkable trajectory’ as a career path

Nikki Seymour conducting field work in the mountains
Seymour made significant and long-lasting contributions to the department’s summer field course. Photo courtesy of Nikki Seymour.

During her time at CSU, she worked in the lab of Assistant Professor John Singleton and made a major impression on students and faculty in the Department of Geosciences.

“Nikki is incredibly bright and enthusiastic,” he said. “One of the things I admire about her is the breadth of her work; she is such a well-rounded geoscientist.”

Singleton said that that nearly everyone in the department knows Seymour because she is curious and enjoys being involved with a wide variety of research.

“She is not afraid to step outside of her comfort zone and learn something new,” he said.

Seymour made significant and long-lasting contributions to the department’s summer field course, which serves as a capstone experience for undergraduates. Singleton said that while most graduate students will assist for a few weeks in the course, Seymour served as the lead teaching assistant for three consecutive summers, logging around four months of time with the students and faculty.

“It’s an exceptional level of commitment to our field program,” he said.

Seymour received an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Texas at Austin in 2009. But following graduation and while working in Houston, she realized she did not enjoy her job very much. One of her best friends, a geoscientist, suggested that she look into earth sciences as a possible career change.

Seymour ended up going back to school and received a master’s degree from the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT-Austin. “I took an introductory course and just loved it,” she said. “I never looked back.”

Singleton described her career path as a remarkable trajectory.

“I’m flabbergasted that she took her first geology class eight years ago,” he said. “And while I know it’s cliché, it shows that if you put your mind to something, you can do amazing things. Nikki went all in on becoming a geoscientist, and she was willing to embrace everything she learned. To go from an introductory student to receiving a Ph.D. and becoming one of the top graduate students in the country is really remarkable.”

An approachable and supportive teacher, constant learner

Rachael Hirsch, who graduated from CSU with a bachelor’s in geophysics and seismology in 2018, said Seymour played a huge role in helping her complete her studies. She is now working at Denver-based EOG Resources, one of the largest crude oil and natural gas production companies in the United States.

“Nikki was always there for us, not only as a teacher but she advocated for us as students,” she said. “She’s the most approachable person in the world. She loves what she does and loves to share what she does. It’s a huge way of showing her love for people.”

Hirsch said Seymour is constantly learning, working to make herself better at what she does, no matter the challenge.

During a field experience several years, Hirsch said the team was forced to evacuate during the final weeks by a nearby fire in Durango. In an instant, Seymour found a new, high-quality field experience and lodging for 40 students ­in the summer, in Colorado.

“She goes above and beyond for everybody in everything that she does,” said Hirsch, who said she’d like to lobby for the installation of a bronze statue of Seymour outside of the Warner College of Natural Resources.

Micah Hernandez, a 2019 graduate, described Seymour as “brilliant.”

She played a pivotal role during his first field experience in the Atacama Desert in Chile. On this trip, Hernandez conducted mapping and took samples from rock formations that he analyzed for his senior research project at CSU.

“Nikki was the one who really taught me how to behave and act as a field geologist, from things like making basic observations while you’re in the field, to understanding what things to look for, how to take notes and keep a good record,” he said.

Hernandez is currently working with the United States Geological Survey.

A need to introduce more young people to geosciences

Seymour said more scientists and educators need to introduce young people early on to the topic of geology.

This past summer, she worked with GeoFORCE, a K-12 outreach program at UT-Austin designed to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing STEM degrees and careers.

“We have an incredible geologic wonderland in our backyard,” she said. “If students are exposed to geosciences, there will be a lot of interest in it. It doesn’t receive the same amount of focus as something like physics, but it’s really relevant to Colorado’s petroleum and mining industries and the concerns about the environment that come with those industries. I’d love to see if we can work with school districts more.”

Accolades

Seymour was recognized as an outstanding graduate teaching assistant and, separately, for outstanding service in the Department of Geosciences in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources. She was also the recipient of an outstanding student award from the Association for Women Geoscientists and was a research fellow in the Office of the Vice President for Research at CSU. Early on in her career at the university, Seymour received the Edward Warner Research Assistantship.

Learn more about Seymour: https://nikkimseymour.com/cv/