KWI Karst Award

The Karst Award is an award given annually to an outstanding member of the cave and karst field.

Karst Award recipient for 2021: Dr. Annette Summers Engel

Annette Summers Engel

Dr. Annette Summers Engel

Since the age of 12 years old, Dr. Engel knew she wanted to be a geologist and explore caves. The career aspirations hit her while attending a camp at Carter Caves State Resort Park in Kentucky, and after she met a group of college students and their biology professor, Dr. Horton H. Hobbs, III, from the Wittenberg University Speleological Society (WUSS) in Springfield, Ohio.  Annette eventually majored in geology at Wittenberg. She spent nearly every weekend doing research with Dr. Hobbs and other students, including Megan Porter, Toby Dogwiler, and Scott Engel (who ultimately offered her a Mrs. certificate in 1995). At Wittenberg, she met Serban Sarbu in 1994 and learned about his dissertation research at the University of Cincinnati focused on the Movile Cave ecosystem in Romania. Annette was offered a position on the team and jumped at the chance to do research in Romania. Her research culminated in a Master’s degree in geology in 1997. But, the mid-1990s were a remarkable time for interdisciplinary science, and the field of geomicrobiology was just beginning to emerge. Embracing the interdisciplinary approach, Annette took the opportunity to earn a second Master’s degree, this time in biology, at Cincinnati, and continued her work in Movile Cave, as well as in the Frasassi Caves in Italy and Lower Kane Cave in Wyoming. By her side in these adventures was Megan Porter, who also worked with Dr. Hobbs at Wittenberg and who worked on the Movile project for her Master’s degree at Cincinnati.

Lower Kane Cave offered a range of interesting research possibilities, and Annette focused her Ph.D. dissertation research on that system with her advisor and geochemist Dr. Philip Bennett at the University of Texas‒Austin. Their work led to the discovery of a new group of sulfur bacteria whose closest relatives are found at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Their work also provided experimental evidence that microorganisms play a key role in sulfuric acid speleogenesis, and that this, and likely other microbially-mediated processes, could be more important to the evolution of cave and karst landscapes and karst ecosystems.

After receiving her Ph.D. degree in 2004, Annette was hired as an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Departments of Geology & Geophysics and Biological Sciences at Louisiana State University. During the next six years, Annette and her students worked on diverse projects, which included cave and karst research in the Edwards Aquifer region of Texas with Dr. Justin Birdwell and Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, as well as with Dr. Janez Mulec from the Karst Research Institute in Postojna, Slovenia. But, being in Louisiana, Annette also worked on coastal and estuarine research topics to understand the microbial diversity and ecology of salt marshes and symbiotic associations with marine animals.

In 2011, Annette moved to the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee‒Knoxville, where she is now a full Professor and holds the Donald and Florence Jones endowed professorship of aqueous geochemistry. Although Annette has continued her work in coastal systems, particularly following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, being located in Tennessee and the Appalachians refocused her attention back to caves, thanks in part to the efforts of an active group interested in regional karst research, which has included Dr. Sarah Keenan, Dr. Terri Brown, and Audrey Paterson, as well as recent students Vickie Frazier and Hannah Rigoni, and close collaborative ties with biospeleologists like Dr. Matthew Niemiller and Dr. Kirk Zigler.

In 2017, Annette and Scott were invited by Dr. Megan Porter to join a team of biospeleologists who were conducting biology research in lava tubes on Hawai’i. Along with Mike and Dr. Christy Slay from Arkansas, and cavers from the Cave Conservancy of Hawai’i (CCH) and Hawai’i Speleological Society, they have been inventorying and studying the biological diversity of the lava tubes. Annette has focused her attention on the biogeochemistry and ecological details of the lava tube ecosystems. She now serves on the CCH board and the board of the Hawai’i Grotto. She and Scott also recently took on the responsibility of being land and cave owners in Hawai’i, to help with conservation efforts for the Kipuka Kanohina system in the Ocean View area of the Hawia’i Island.

To date, Annette has published over 100 scholarly and peer-reviewed papers and has edited five books. She has received grants for her work from the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies, Annette was elected to the Karst Waters Institute Board of Directors in 2005, and spent nearly 10 years either serving on the Board or as the Vice President for Communications. She was on the board of directors for the Cave Conservancy of the Virginias from 2013‒2019, and still chairs the student scholarship committee for the Cave Conservancy Foundation. She is on the International Advisory Committee for the International Society for Subsurface Microbiology and serves as the President of the International Society for Environmental Biogeochemistry (ISEB). She is a past recipient of the James G. Mitchell Award and Science Award from the National Speleological Society, as well as a recipient of a Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation award. She is a Fellow of the National Speleological Society, the Geological Society of America, the Explorers Club, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Annette and Scott reside in Knoxville, Tennessee, but can hear the ocean waves on distant islands.


Previous KWI Karst Award Winners