It all began with a love of rocks


Shannon Kobs Nawotniak smiling inside of a volcano in Iceland

Ava McBride and Evan Gerlach

The sound of the ranch horse carrying Dr. Shannon Kobs Nawotniak’s gets lost in the dense rainforest of Veracruz, the wettest part of Mexico. She’s headed to San Martin Tuxtla, a volcano that hasn’t erupted in 200 years. 

   The hand-carved wooden saddle is unbearably uncomfortable. She leans forward to keep a grasp of the far too short reins. Her backpack, filled with gear, digs into her underarms, leaving bruises.

Once the horses can go no further, the team tethers them to trees. Time to hike. Rain slicks down. The area gets over eight meters of precipitation a year. She clings onto vines and wields a machete to clear a path through the dense understory. 

   Twenty two years ago, Kobs Nawotniak was sitting at a desk in Instructor Gus Lukow’s AP Chemistry – her least favorite class – at West Ottawa High School. Her geology teacher burst into the room carrying a rock and hammer. “If I hit it, it smells funky!” he said, passing the rock around and encouraging the students to sniff it. Lukow was irritated at the interruption. “Hey, she’s the kid who likes the rocks. She might know something about this!” Embarrassed, Kobs Natowniak’s face flushed. She was the kid who liked rocks. 

Kobs Nawotniak joined the Tulip City Gem and Mineral Club at age five. While in kindergarten at North Holland Elementary, she received a free ticket to the Gem and Mineral Show. “I was a total rock geek as a child,” Kobs Nawotniak said. She quickly became known for her love of rocks.

   She began doing outreach to West Ottawa elementary schools while still an elementary student herself. “Someone had the great idea that if you have another kid talk about how cool rocks are, it makes it more appealing to other kids,” Kobs Nawotniak said. She presented ‘R is for Rocks’ to kindergarten classes for many years starting in second grade. Eventually, she had two days off from middle school to give lessons. “I knew I loved rocks, but I did not know what that was really going to mean long term,” she said

In high school, her passion continued to grow. When fears arose of the Gem and Mineral Club dying out, she established and co-led a junior club. When a teacher found the district’s rock collection abandoned in a closet, they immediately turned to Kobs Nawotniak. She earned her Girl Scout Gold Award for cataloguing the collection.

   “I was pretty nerdy. I was also captain of the softball team and set school records. It wasn’t like I didn’t get out of my books, but definitely I more identified as pretty nerdy, pretty academically driven,” she said. Instructor Ken Strobel coached her in softball. “Really intelligent, really happy, really kind person. It is no surprise that she has become wildly successful,” he said. Kobs Nawotniak also was a member of the band for four years and played bass clarinet. 

During her senior year, she taught herself AP Calculus so she could be a Peer Assisted Listener (PAL). She convinced her teachers to let her do this by volunteering in remedial math classes. “It made them feel like they had more contact with me and again, totally did great on the AP exam.” This is extremely impressive.

Instructor Paul McNitt led the PALs program for many years.“Although it was over 20 years ago, I remember Shannon being high-energy, enthusiastic toward life, and service-driven.  She wore a near constant smile, and the enthusiasm which she approached challenges positively impacted all those around her.  She was a difference-maker at an age when most were simply trying to fit in,” he said. 

   The PALs program proved valuable to Kobs Nawotniak while working with students at ISU. “When I mentor some of my grad students, I’m instantly flashing back to some of that stuff from that class. Like my tone or my body language, how can I make this a welcoming space?” she said.

The teachers at West Ottawa pushed Kobs Nawotniak to reach her full potential. “They gave me these opportunities and worked with me through the situation, you know, pushed me along. Just so many phenomenal teachers,” she said. 

   Kobs Nawotniak believes attending West Ottawa was helpful to her education, especially regarding AP classes. At Michigan Tech, she could test into more advanced classes than her peers who didn’t have AP credit. “I felt like WO really set me up well for stuff like that, or thinking critically and problem solving. I saw a lot of my friends struggle when we got off to college,” she said. 

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Kobs Nawotniak attended the University of Buffalo to earn her PhD in geology. “My specialty is volcanoes, and my specialty in grad school was big explosive eruptions- figuring out where the ash goes, programming supercomputers to model it, and digging holes in the ground until I couldn’t see out anymore,” she said.

Wapi lava boat

   Subsequently, she became a physical volcanologist and assistant professor at Idaho State University. Here, she made connections that led her to NASA, thanks to the mentorship of her precursor. “He introduced me to some of his buddies, and he had been doing work with some NASA stuff and suddenly I was being introduced to these NASA folks. That turned into me getting to do some of this stuff on my own. We started developing proposals, and it has been the most fun ever.”

SUBSEA mission control

Kobs Nawotniak compares her experiences to the ideal, but unrealistic, group project. Everyone’s an expert that contributes 110%, and you’re getting paid. “Working with the NASA projects is like getting to work with the dream team of people,” she said. 

   “I’ve got to do so many cool things I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Kobs Nawotniak said. “I’m getting paid by NASA to be a simulation astronaut, playing on a volcano, in Hawaii. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

BASALT astronaut team

Her team has discovered an unknown hydrothermal system in the Pacific Ocean using unmanned submarines, and worked on a project that replicated Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. “You can do really really cool stuff if you can find the right team,” she said. 

   Kobs Nawotniak has traveled the world chasing volcanoes. “I’ve hiked around Iceland, had ash fall on me from eruptions in Japan, and I’ve gotten to talk with villagers in Ecuador about their evacuation plans,” she said.  These are the exceptional moments that make her hard work worth it.

Sakurajima eruption, Japan

She ascended San Martin Tuxtla while working as a postdoc at the National University in Mexico City. “I get to do for my job what other people at ten years old fantasize about and time takes that out of them as being an option, and I’m the person who forgot to figure out you couldn’t do it.”

   However, one of Kobs Nawotniak’s biggest accomplishments took place in an office. She is the director of the honors program for ISU and has made efforts to improve equity and access within it. Sadly, many students who come from Native American reservations don’t have the same opportunities because they graduate anonymously from micro districts. 

Within two years of Kobs Nawotniak taking the position, the application rate doubled and systemic barriers were removed. “I think it is part of my responsibility as someone who, by chasing volcanoes, has somehow ended up with a certain amount of power and influence,” she said. Her determination has benefited countless students. 

   Luckily, Kobs Nawotniak has not faced many challenges as a woman in STEM, but laughs looking back on one incident. A candidate for a professor position needed to be picked up from the airport and taken to dinner before the strenuous two-day interview. Usually, aspirants are on their best behavior. When she reached the door of the restaurant, he body checked her out of the doorway. 

He then “tells me I must be the only woman in my field because it should be naturally distasteful for women to study volcanoes,” she said. Kobs Nawotniak was rightfully fuming, but her composure never wavered. He insisted that her car must be her husband’s because it is way too masculine to belong to a woman. It was a bright yellow Ford Escape, previously owned by Kobs Nawotniak’s mother. They did not hire him. 

   While Kobs Nawotniak is extremely passionate about her career, she recognizes it is not the path for everybody. “Sometimes I think my example where I loved rocks as a kid is kind of a terrible example to follow because it puts too much pressure on people,” she said. Nonetheless, one can’t help but be inspired by her living out her childhood fantasies.  

Kobs Nawotniak advises students to take risks. “I think a lot of the opportunities and successes I had are because I had moments that kind of scared me, but I refused to back down. But that’s also not always the right answer. That thin line between bravery and stupidity,” Kobs Nawotniak said.