Forest Frontiers: Dr. Jennifer Jenkins
Why did you choose to work with forests?
I loved camping as a kid. When I was in high school, I did a lot of kayaking and rock climbing in the Washington, D.C. area and spent a lot of summers in the backcountry in national parks in the West and Alaska. I fell in love with those huge, majestic landscapes and I always felt right at home in the woods. For my career, I knew I wanted to do something related to the environment and I enjoyed the kind of in-depth research and synthesis that is required for graduate school. I’m also passionate about climate change and appreciate the complexity of climate change policy. My career has been a winding road, but I’ve always maintained a focus on forests and climate.
Why did you decide to join the American Forests Science Advisory Board?
I support American Forests’ mission on behalf of forest ecosystems. I also believe in the capacity of objective scientific research to help solve problems and especially in the importance of science-based policy. I am looking forward to being involved with American Forests’ work and I think it’s terrific that American Forests is looking to science and this group of experts to help inform its programs.
What is your favorite aspect or favorite part of your field?
I love to tackle a complex problem and break it down into its component parts. The more complicated the better! Lucky for me, the climate change problem has many interlocking and interacting pieces. For example, on the technical side, we talk about land use change, emissions up and down the supply chain, inventories and inventory data, interactions between elements like carbon and nitrogen and so much more. Then, on the policy side, we talk about policy tools like cap and trade, offsets and carbon taxes, not to mention the complicated political dynamics that change from day to day.
What was the most difficult challenge you’ve experienced in pursuit of your work?
When I worked at the Environmental Protection Agency, I was part of the U.S. negotiating team that traveled to Copenhagen for the COP15 conference in 2009. Parachuting into that process as a newcomer was profoundly difficult because the decision-making process of the U.N. Framework Commission on Climate Change is so different from any other process that exists anywhere in the world. It takes years to master the language and nuance of diplomacy, and I found the slow pace of discussions to be very frustrating. It was also tough to be a member of the U.S. team in that situation, because the other countries were looking at the U.S. and asking, “What reductions can you commit to? What do you bring to the table?” At that point, there wasn’t much, so progress was slow.
Do you have a favorite story from your years in the field?
I was doing fieldwork for my dissertation at study sites in Connecticut. I was using buried bags to measure nitrogen mineralization and since microbial activity is slow in the winter months I buried one set of bags in the fall to dig up in the spring, rather than the monthly bags you would use during the growing season. In the spring, my field assistant and I drove to Connecticut to pick up the buried bags from the first half of the field sites and stopped for the night at a motel outside Hartford. When we woke up in the morning, ready to drive to the rest of the field sites, we found that the car had been stolen, along with all of the buried bags with my overwinter samples! Chasing down that field vehicle was kind of interesting — the police learned that it had been taken on a joyride by some kids. When we got it back, it was filled with random stuff like snacks and clothing. But no soil samples!
Where was the most interesting, most intriguing, most impactful or favorite place you were able to travel to in the name of science and why?
I’ve been fortunate to travel to some interesting places, usually for meetings rather than fieldwork. I’ve attended IPCC and UNFCCC meetings in places like Geneva, Copenhagen, Bangkok, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Mauritius, Frankfurt, Arona — just outside Milan — and Oslo. But my favorite place — by far — is Australia. I traveled to Sydney one year and almost didn’t come home.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be and why?
My work combines science with a lot of other things, like business and policy, so I don’t have to give up science to take on something new. So, I think I’ll always do something science-related, but I also enjoy business and entrepreneurship. For something completely different, I’ve thought about opening a Crossfit gym. I think that would be really fun.