Career Profile: Jennifer Roberts

Department of Geology, University of Kansas

The University of Kansas is a public research university.
Jennifer Roberts is one of the leaders of the 2010 "Early Career Geoscience Faculty" Workshop. Prior to the workshop, we asked each of the leaders to describe their careers, for the benefit of workshop participants, by answering the questions below.

Click on a topic to read Jennifer's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Early teaching challenges * Research transition * Institutional fit * Balancing responsibilities * Advice for new faculty

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.
I completed my B.S. in Geology at Trinity University and was fortunate to have two excellent undergraduate research experiences. As an undergraduate, during my summer breaks I worked at Los Alamos National Lab in an environmental isotope group. On the more field-oriented side of research, I participated in a Keck Geology Consortium research project during my senior year studying granite geochemistry in Maine. This experience further solidified my love of geochemistry and mineralogy, but also confirmed that my interests lay in more environmentally-related research. This led me to do graduate work in the field of hydrogeology at the University of Texas at Austin. I received an IGERT (integrative graduate education and research traineeship) that allowed me to design my own project and this began my research in the subdiscipline ofgeomicrobiology. I finished my PhD and went on to do a short NRC post doc in microbial transport at the USGS. I began a faculty position in the Department of Geology at the University of Kansas and was tenured and promoted there.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your early years of full-time teaching? Could you briefly describe how you overcame one of those challenges?
Although I encountered many of the typical challenges associated with undergraduate teaching at a large institution, my biggest challenge was at the graduate level. Because of my interdisciplinary graduate training my specialty wasn't anything I had ever taken as a formal course, and at that time there was one textbook, which was out of print. Although I knew that my subdiscipline was unique and more than the sum of its parts, it was difficult to design a course that got to those unique attributes without having students take five different preparatory courses or teach all of those components before embarking on the good stuff. Neither approach was a viable option. This was exacerbated on the mentoring side of things when I encountered similar issues in training students to do lab and fieldwork. My students needed to learn how to do microbiology, aqueous geochemistry, mineralogy, and field hydrogeology in order to accomplish their goals, each of which had numerous techniques and instruments associated with it. It was time consuming to train each student individually, along with the other numerous pre-tenure demands on my time.

I had been grappling with these issues for a year or more when I began writing an NSF grant that required a strong educational component. I used this as impetus to reconsider these courses and merge my teaching and research. Along with a colleague who taught at a small liberal arts college I identified the things that were most important to my teaching goals and designed a course around those. Those had more to do with teaching students skills such as proposal writing and experimental design than specific topical knowledge. The redesigned courses were aimed at teaching first year graduate students how to do interdisciplinary research, and specifically geomicrobiology. This approach has been successful for me and my students, who begin their research earlier and with more confidence than previously.

How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
I continued to do related work and then chose one area to expand into. These areas of research are where I focused most of my attention as an untenured faculty member. Once I had a few strong publications in each area, I began to do more collaborative research. My institution sets a high premium on junior faculty creating a reputation in a distinct area, so this approach allowed me to keep my research fairly focused going into tenure review.

An essential component of achieving tenure is finding or making an alignment of your teaching/research goals with the goals of your institution.... How do your goals fit with those of your institution? Did you adjust your goals to achieve that fit? If so, how?
My institution requires a high level of teaching and significant depth in terms of research area/reputation. This meant I had to focus significant energy on my teaching as well as my research. Pre-tenure I chose a relatively narrow focus in my research and was able to establish a set number of courses that I was responsible for. This allowed me to develop these courses and improve them over time, rather than teaching new material every semester.

Many of the new faculty members in these workshops are interested in maintaining a modicum of balance while getting their careers off to a strong start. Please share a strategy or strategies that have helped you to balance teaching, research, and your other work responsibilities, OR balance work responsibilities with finding time for your personal life.
I am someone who needs large blocks of time to really get focused on the task at hand. Therefore, I balance teaching and research by first blocking out travel and research activities far in advance and then making a fairly strict weekly schedule. For example, on days that I teach all I do is teach, meet with students, and accomplish administrative duties. On non-teaching days I exclusively write papers and proposals and work in the lab. Sometimes, this isn't possible so I block out mornings or afternoons in the same way.

What advice do you have for faculty beginning academic careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career in academia?
It's easy to be taken advantage of as an untenured faculty member, even by well-intentioned colleagues. Take care of yourself first. That means managing your time both personally and professionally and being selfish when you need to be. It's ok to say "no".