Career Profile: Jane Willenbring
Department of Geological Sciences, Stanford University
Stanford University is a private research university.
Click on a topic to read Jane'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 am from rural North Dakota. I received my B.Sc. from the North Dakota State University where I was a McNair Scholar. I received my Masters degree from Boston University and my Ph.D. from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada where I was a Killam Scholar. I was a Synthesis Postdoctoral Fellow at the NSF-funded National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics at the Saint Anthony Falls Lab at the University of Minnesota, and an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow and then subsequently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Helmholz GFZ Potsdam, Germany. I was an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and then an Associate Professor in the Geosciences Research Division and Thomas and Evelyn Page Chancellor's Endowed Faculty Fellow at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego where I was the director of the Scripps Cosmogenic Isotope Laboratory (SCI-Lab). I joined Stanford University as an Associate Professor in the summer of 2020. I am a Gabilan Fellow at Stanford and a Fellow of the Geological Society of America.
I am a geologist who solves problems related to the Earth surface. My research is primarily done to understand the evolution of the Earth's surface - especially how landscapes are affected by tectonics, climate change, and life. My research group and I use geochemical techniques, high-resolution topographic data, field observations, and, when possible, couple these data to landscape evolution numerical models and ice sheet models. The geochemical tools I use and develop often include cosmogenic nuclide systems, which provide powerful, novel methods to constrain rates of erosion and mineral weathering. I also do environmental justice work around urban soil pollution.
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?
One challenge in my career has been navigating a long-distance marriage. Some people call this situation a two-body problem. My husband was professor in California while I lived in Philadelphia. I had a baby in year 3 as an assistant professor and solo parenting pre-tenure while supporting a large research group, overseeing a (semi-)clean lab with no technical support from the university, maintaining an active fieldwork and travel schedule, while teaching large intro courses was pretty challenging. I was a House Fellow on campus and lived with 450 freshmen to be able to afford to hire a nanny from 9-5 on work days so I didn't have random schedule disruptions or class cancelations when she got sick. I also incorporated her into my work-life, which I think was nice for students to see a woman scientist doing her thing with a baby on my hip.
How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
I was really burned out after my Masters and PhD (topic of glacial erosion and glacial history). I actively refocused during my postdocs on fluvial erosion and developing a new geochemical technique and fell in love with research again. I discovered that carving out time for pursuing new ideas was something that I needed to function happily as an academic. Eventually, I switched from having a large research group of ~12 trainees at various stages to a smaller group of ~5 where I could 'do science' with my mentees more was something I really value and makes me stay grounded in why I do this job.
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?
As an assistant professor, I did various things that I was advised not to do pre-tenure like research unrelated to my core bread-and-butter technique, environmental justice work that I did not intend to publish and community building. I ignored the advice of those people - including the department chair and my assigned mentor - and stayed true to my personal goals and did what I knew would make me feel fulfilled and excited to go to work. I found there were others who valued these efforts both at my university and at other universities.
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.
It sounds strange, but I found having a child and a dog to be a great way to do things other than work. In part, I was forced to compress the work I needed to do into fewer hours and focused to take breaks for dog walks. It was impossible to give 100% to every single activity. So I had to be strategic in how I spent my time.
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?
I learned that if something isn't working for me, I need to experiment with different ways of doing things until it does work. I can't expect things to change for the better if I don't change my strategy and figure out what works best. Things also change over time - especially with managing people and the evolving needs of children and their schedules. So it is a constant iterative dance of reflection, experimentation, and retooling.