A Scientist's Life: Jane Willenbring

Geologist Jane Willenbring studies "the science of scenery," how the landscape changes over time

Update: Jane Willenbring is no longer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography as of Fall 2020.

Geologist Jane Willenbring joined Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego in 2016. She received her PhD in earth science from Dalhousie University in Halifax in 2006 and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at several academic centers, including as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Germany. She was most recently an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Scripps.

On March 3, 2018, she received the UC San Diego Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action and Diversity Award in part for her efforts to raise awareness of sexual harassment in academia. She has also initiated the popular Growing Up in Science seminar series at Scripps.

explorations now: What do you do for a living?

Jane Willenbring:  I study what I like to call the science of scenery, which is a field called geomorphology. We study how the landscape changes over time. The main ways we do that are by using geochemical techniques, fieldwork and some remote sensing data to look at topography.

We’re trying to understand how the earth’s surface changes over time. Earth’s surface is responding to different forcing mechanisms. Tectonics can change the landscape, climate can change the landscape, and life and humans can change the landscape.

Some of the main projects where I have National Science Foundation funding are in the dry valleys of Antarctica, the Luquillo Critical Zone Observatory in Puerto Rico, and in the South Fork Eel River in Northern California. I just started working on a project looking at coastal erosion and how fast the coastlines are receding in California.

en:  What are the main questions in your field?  

JW:  How does the landscape respond to life, tectonics and changing climates? We’re still trying to figure out the drivers. We’re trying to understand the human impacts on the land and how that impacts human health and more broadly how life affects the landscape. My group also tries to flip it and see how the landscape has affected patterns of evolution and biodiversity – and does life play a role in the evolution of topography at all.

Puerto Rico is just teeming with life so we’ve been figuring out what role do some micro- and macro-biota have in keeping soil on the landscape. Worms dig holes and this becomes important in a really fast rainstorm where you can actually move the water into the subsurface quite quickly and prevent flow over the soil surface, which creates erosion.  Different kinds of trees affect the landscape in different ways. In some cases, trees form umbrellas over parts of the landscape and protects it over long periods of time. Then you get other trees like palm trees which actually funnel rain down onto single focused spots. Over millions of years, we see that the plants are creating some of the topography in those environments.

en:  What are the tools you use in field research?  

JW: We go into the field, make observations about the landscape, and take samples – maybe of river sand or a rock outcrop – to find out how quickly or slowly different parts of the landscape are changing or eroding.  We bring the samples back to the Scripps Cosmogenic Isotope Lab and physically and chemically process that sample. Eventually we isolate a specific isotope of beryllium, which is formed from cosmic radiation interactions. That helps us understand how long different materials at the earth’s surface have been there and can be related to erosion rates.

Cosmogenic nuclides are isotopes of different atoms caused by cosmic ray interactions. Cosmic rays are created from supernova explosions and they send energetic particles throughout the universe. Some of them interact with matter on Earth. Cosmic ray interactions happen at a specific rate so we can measure the production of isotopes over time and figure out how long something has been at Earth’s surface. The techniques we use are really dependent on how we measure those isotopes so we use something called an accelerator mass spectrometer that can measure one atom in a million billion. So it’s very precise at measuring small quantities of this isotope in Earth materials.

My lab is actually a renovated version of [late Scripps professor] Devendra Lal’s lab. He was the grandfather of cosmogenic nuclide techniques. He really pioneered it in the 1960s. We still use that technique today and it’s still considered new because we’re always figuring out new ways to use it. It’s also getting easier to measure them all the time.

en: Why did you come to Scripps?

JW: I came to Scripps because of the world-class science being done here. It’s a great place to attract some of the best graduate students, the undergraduate students are top-notch and you have the natural environment to study landscapes all around you. You’re surrounded by beauty, nature, and landscapes all the time. I find that to be a daily inspiration. Also, I have the best colleagues in the world so that’s great too.

en: How do you want to inspire future generations of female researchers?

JW: One effort I’m leading at Scripps is the Growing Up in Science seminar series where people can hear life stories of different faculty members and the paths they took to becoming a faculty member. It’s a great way, I think, for young female graduate students to get a sense of what being a scientist is actually like because when you see someone who is a full professor or even an assistant professor who is doing their research well and is successful, you may not realize that they struggled as graduate students too, or that part of their career success may have been due to serendipity or being at the right place at the right time. I feel sometimes students will think that because they haven’t experienced that side of things, they’ll assume that when they struggle, they’re experiencing something wrong or bad. That’s often just part of the student experience. Struggling and failing is often how we learn.

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.