Geology can take you to some interesting places. Tibet, for one.

Home to the tallest mountains on Earth, it’s where Abijah Simon spent three field seasons mapping the region’s eastern border as a UCLA graduate student. Carrying only a rock hammer, compass, notebook and camera — using what she calls “old-school, bare-bones geologic techniques” — she studied the inner workings of the world’s highest plateau, which towers 15,000 feet above sea level. In fact, Simon has mapped more of the eastern Tibetan plateau than any other American geologist.

“By measuring the rocks and compiling data, we can create a model for how these mountains formed and where the faults are that cause these really devastating earthquakes in the region. So my work has an impact on seismic risk assessment, which is pretty meaningful,” Simon said. “Our driver while we were there — he’d lost his 8-year-old son in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people and affected millions. It meant a lot to be able to work there and have an impact on that region.”

Simon, who will graduate this year with her Ph.D. in geology, has always asked big questions about the natural world. Her unique skillset makes her particularly suited to her field: a sculptor and graphic designer, Simon triple-majored in art along with geology and environmental studies as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. When she interviewed with her UCLA graduate advisor — the late professor An Yin — he saw her potential immediately.

“He said it was a perfect combination for structural geology, which is basically mapping 3D structures and creating visual models of how mountains form,” said Simon, who remembers Yin’s dedication to helping her sharpen her unique strengths. “His goal was to help his students find their own passions, and he really did inspire many people’s love for science.”

Simon has followed in his footsteps in more ways than one. In addition to research and teaching, she spent several years leading Exploring Your Universe, UCLA’s annual K–12 science fair, which draws thousands of community members to campus each fall. During her tenure, she added booths from UCLA’s medical and engineering schools to the event, and she ensured more students from Title I schools than ever before were able to attend.

“One of the things I’m really passionate about is working to bring science to everybody, especially those who may not have had the best access to science or teaching,” she said. “My hope is to inspire them to discover what’s out there and what’s possible.”

Simon also faced the monumental task of steering EYU through the pandemic, which meant taking the event all-virtual for two years — and then, in 2022, transitioning it back to campus. But the most significant challenge she faced at UCLA was the loss of Yin, her advisor, whose sudden death in 2023 stunned the community.

“After he died, everybody at UCLA came together and helped to support me and his other two students,” she said. “The student community reached out to help, too, and I really appreciated that.”

One of her favorite memories of Yin: the capstone course he taught each summer in California’s White Mountains, with Simon serving as TA. “We’d take 20 undergraduate students, go out to these beautiful regions and set up camp for a whole month. There’s no cell service or anything, so it’s a very rugged environment and such a bonding experience,” she said. “Even the students who think it’s a hard time — you know, ‘Why do I have to bathe in the river,’ right? — they come out with very fond memories. And my advisor worked very hard to make these trips a memorable experience for everybody.”

Simon’s bond with Yin was so strong, in fact, that when his teenage daughter needed a place to stay after his death, Simon opened her doors and took her in, becoming her caregiver.

“I’ve learned so much from taking care of her — just figuring out how to be the best person I can be for her,” Simon said. “And I’m really proud of her growth, with everything that she’s gone through.”

Ultimately, Simon is hopeful that her research will help future scientists better understand the Tibetan plateau, including its seismic hazards, and improve current tectonic models — and that her expansion of EYU will keep resonating throughout the community. As she looks to her own future, she sees plenty more interesting places to go — especially after a recent water conservation internship amplified her interest in how her geology background can contribute to sustainability work.

“I guess when you spend so much time outdoors, you want to make sure that these beautiful places can be preserved for other people,” she said. “And that’s really important to me. So I’m open to possibilities.”

Group shot including Abijah Simon, second from right, and An Yin, center, wearing red
Courtesy of Abijah Simon
Abijah Simon (second from right) had a special bond with her advisor, the late professor An Yin (center, wearing red), who she remembers for his dedication to his students.