Photo of a person looking at the camera while standing on rocks by a water body.
Eiko Kitao visits her field site at Vandenberg Space Force Base along the central coast of California. Credit: Eiko Kitao
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When Eiko Kitao brings students to her field site within Vandenberg Space Force Base, she knows the day will be magical. There, on the rugged central coast of California, the group digs up the bones of Pleistocene mammals, including giant ground sloths, mammoths, and saber-toothed cats.

Kitao’s journey to unearthing these fossils has been far from conventional. “I did everything backward in life,” she said.

A laboratory technician at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) in California today, Kitao struggled with math and science in her youth. “I used to count on my fingers,” she said. “There were so many times I wanted to quit.”

After high school, Kitao attended Lake Tahoe Community College as a single mom, eventually moving back to her hometown of Santa Barbara, where she enrolled at SBCC.

During a class field trip to Death Valley, everything changed. The fascinating landscape and hands-on experience ignited a passion for geology that would shape her future. “On that trip, something in my mind clicked where nothing ever had before,” Kitao said.

Since then, she has pursued her passion with unwavering determination, earning a bachelor’s degree in geological sciences from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2011. Shortly thereafter, she became a full-time lab technician at SBCC, where she continues to use her expertise to help undergraduates learn about geology through field experiences.

After a 2-year pause to earn a master’s degree in geography from California State University, Northridge, Kitao has been at SBCC since 2018.

Her passion for teaching is palpable, and her dedication to her students is evident. In addition to working with students, Kitao creates content for courses, hosts community outreach programs, and helps to develop a national database of the college’s fossil samples. Her greatest joy is watching her students grow and develop their love of geology, just as she did during her field trip to Death Valley.

—Mackenzie White (@MackenzieMtn), Science Writer

This profile is part of a special series in our August 2023 issue on science careers.

Citation: White, M. (2023), Eiko Kitao: Fossil hunter and passionate educator, Eos, 104, Published on 25 August 2023.
Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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