On the Cutting Edge - Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
Early Career Geoscience Faculty: Teaching, Research, and Managing Your Career
Topical Resources
Cutting Edge > Early Career > Developing a Research Program > Evans case study

Dr. Jenni Evans, Pennsylvania State University

Jenni Evans. Photo courtesy of Jenni Evans.
Most of the information on this page is from an interview that took place on April 17, 2006.

Jenni Evans is a professor in the Department of Meteorology at The Pennsylvania State University. Penn State is a prestigious public research university. In addition to their teaching responsibilities, faculty members in meteorology are expected to maintain an active, externally funded research program, supervise graduate students, and publish their work in peer-reviewed journals. Jenni typically has a PhD student and two or three Masters students working with her at any given time, and often supervises undergraduate student researchers as well.

Regular group meetings plus one-on-one attention

Jenni meets with her students every week, both individually and as a group. Lab group meetings last about an hour, and individual meetings about half an hour. These meetings serve several important purposes. In individual meetings, Jenni has a chance to check in with her students, make sure classes are going well, and also discuss the student's research plan and strategies.

The group meetings keep students informed about each other's research, and talking to each other about science. Since almost all of her students do research related to hurricanes or other aspects of tropical meteorology, each person's research is often relevant to the other students in the group. Each student presents to the group every 4-6 weeks. New students review a journal article they've read, while others report their recent progress. These reports must emphasize substance over form; Jenni is emphatic that no fancy presentations are permitted. When a student has a conference presentation coming up, he or she gives a practice presentation. The other students try to prepare the presenter for anything that might be asked at the conference, by asking difficult questions. These meetings also help create an expectation of periodic progress and provide short-term goals for students.

Choosing research students

Jenni advises new faculty members to choose their research students with some care; look for students whose personalities will work well with yours, she says. Jenni uses email and campus visits to get to know potential students, and to develop a sense of what they will be like to work with. Similarly, she cautions against confusing a strong test-taking ability with the ability to do original research. Conducting research requires an ability to face questions about things we don't know; something that makes some students deeply uncomfortable, while intriguing others. To assess how students will approach the research process, Jenni asks them questions about unknown situations, pushing them to speculate about possible answers. Finally, she has found that a student's willingness to work hard is a stronger predictor of success than raw intelligence. Success in research requires a strong internal motivation.

Integrating research and teaching

Because Jenni enjoys her research so much, she inevitably brings it into the classroom. For example, her second PhD student (Bob Hart, now a member of the faculty at Florida State University) developed a new way to conceptualize and describe cyclones, based on just three parameters. His cyclone phase space is now used by the National Hurricane Center. When she describes this work to her students, it helps bring the science to life. Jenni finds that her students are particularly interested in how research scientists can make a difference.

Advice for early career faculty

Jenni has some cogent advice for new faculty members about making the transition from graduate student (or post-doc) to professor. Young faculty members, especially women, sometimes struggle with students not treating them with respect. For disruptive classroom behavior, Jenni has found it sufficient simply to stop what she's doing, stare at the offender(s), and wait until the entire class is staring, too. The disruption always ceases, at which point she goes on. When she started, Jenni also found that students confused her informal style with relaxed academic expectations. However, when she asked them to address her as Dr. Evans, she found that they were less likely to make that mistake.

Expanding research interests

Naturally, Jenni's research interests have expanded over time, building on the foundation of her Ph.D. research on tropical cyclones. She brought her expertise on cyclones to her first job, working in a government lab where the research focused on climate change. This job inspired her to ask questions about how tropical cyclones fit into climate change, leading to a broadening of the questions she was asking.

Students, too, have changed the focus of her research, through the questions and skills they bring. Over time, Jenni's research has shifted from computer modeling toward statistics, as her students' abilities have shifted. Earlier students had strong computational skills; current students have stronger backgrounds in statistics. Next, she may move into forecasting, another strong student interest. This brings up questions of how changes in convection patterns can lead to the development of cyclones, and in what causes those changes in convection. These questions are critical, as they determine where rainfall and winds will be most severe.

Keeping her eyes and ears open has also led to new research directions. Jenni read about a technique that she thought would be interesting in a kinesiology article, asked a statistics colleague whether it would be appropriate to apply that technique to a particular meteorological question, and started down a new research path as a result. Talking to colleagues, too, can lead to new ideas for research. Collaboration with her colleagues in geography and geology is currently leading Jenni toward paleoclimate studies. In short, by keeping an open mind and remaining curious, Jenni always has a wide choice of possible research topics to pursue.