Professor Kieffer came to UIUC in 2002 as a Walgreen University Professor after a diverse career in universities, government, the United States, and Canada. She is known for her work in geological fluid dynamics and for the Kieffer model of heat capacities and thermodynamic properties of complex minerals. As a planetary scientist, she has studied mega-scale geologic processes, such as meteorite impacts, volcanic eruptions, and river floods, on Earth, Mars, Venus, the Moon, Io, Triton and Enceladus. She is also interested in environmental and sustainability issues and has taught the role of finite earth resources in this context. She is also working on geoethics and is one of two vice-presidents of the International Association for Promoting Geoethics.
She was the second American and first (and only) woman to be awarded the Spendiarov Prize of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences for contributions “to our knowledge of the Earth and the Planets and for her prolific research in fields varying from volcanology and planetology to thermodynamics and river hydraulics.” She has also received an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, for her shockwave work on the rocks at Meteor Crater, Arizona; Department of Interior Meritorious Service Award, U.S. Geological Survey, for her work on the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and the 1983 flood on the Colorado River; Mineralogical Society of America Award, for her thermodynamics work; Day Medal, Geological Society of America, for “distinct contributions to geologic knowledge through the application of physics and chemistry to the solution of geologic problems”; Distinguished Alumnus Award, California Institute of Technology; Doctor of Science Honoris Causa, from her undergraduate alma mater, Allegheny College; and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow. In 2014, she was awarded the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America, for “in recognition of eminent research in pure geology.” She is the first woman to receive the award in the 87-year history of the Medal. She was also the first woman to receive the Marcus Milling Legendary Geoscientist Medal, awarded in 2017. She is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Society, the Geological Society of America, the Mineralogical Society of America, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.