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The science of scenery

Associate Professor Jane Willenbring brings her passion for people and surface processes to understand how environmental changes impact life on Earth, and how life impacts the planet.

Jane Willenbring holding sample in the lab
Jane Willenbring processing samples in the lab. (Photo credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Growing up in the Upper Midwest, Jane Willenbring didn’t have a television. She sometimes wouldn’t see anyone but her family for weeks at a time, and oddly enough for a future professor, school was not a priority. Her childhood left her with fond memories of playing in the mud on her family’s subsistence farm – and not-so-fond memories of food hardships or overabundance that left them eating the same vegetables for weeks. 

Despite its ups and downs, Willenbring credits the 20-acre farm in North Dakota west of Mandan where she grew up with offering a combination of factors that eventually led her to pursue geology research: soils that govern sustenance, abundant time for exploring the outdoors, proximity to a unique landscape where the Great Plains give way to the rugged Badlands, and a yearning to distinguish herself in order to leave that difficult life in the Midwest.

“If you rely on your garden and the land for the food that you eat, you don’t just think, ‘oh, soils, they’re really cool’ – they’re critically important to your survival,” Willenbring said. “It’s the difference between having no food that you want to eat or having to eat all potatoes or beets or cabbage or nothing at all.”

That history of being reliant on the land drives much of Willenbring’s current research, which focuses on the science of Earth’s surface and the many ways soil intersects with human health. As an associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Willenbring approaches scenery as not just a backdrop on which life exists, but a dynamic entity that can change because of the things living on it. 

An unlikely introduction

Willenbring’s recent research has been driven by how people are affected by landscapes and vice versa, but that was not always the case. At the start of her academic journey, while she was in school on a partial oboe scholarship, Willenbring was fortuitously assigned to help a paleontologist at North Dakota State University who needed a work-study student. She spent her time separating fossil beetles and mounting them on microscope slides to identify them – which involved going through a lot of sediments.

“I really liked it,” Willenbring said of the beetle project with Allan Ashworth. “And I discovered that I really liked geology, too, because I’d always liked chemistry, biology, physics, and math, but I could never really decide which one, and so geology was a great science-blend.”

The beetle project led her to continue working with Ashworth as a McNair Scholar, a federal program that supports traditionally underrepresented or first-generation college students with financial need.

After she had completed her McNair thesis project, Willenbring remembered thinking that she didn’t have anything to do – a distinct memory because it hasn’t happened since. So her advisor gave her a bunch of sediment he had recently collected from Antarctica. Willenbring thought he had given her the wrong material because it contained freshwater snails, moss, and leaves.

“I said to him, ‘There are no freshwater lakes in Antarctica,’ and he responded, ‘Well, there used to be,’” Willenbring recalled. “I was just blown away that there would at some point have been freshwater lakes.”

When she asked Ashworth the age of the sediment, he responded that no one was sure – it could be 4 million or 40 million years old. 

“I felt like I could help – that seemed like a really easy thing to figure out, 40 million versus 4 million,” Willenbring said. “And then I discovered that I really liked using the technique to figure out how old some of these sediments were. We use cosmogenic nuclides to measure how long parts of the landscape have been around, and you can use that for soils, for example, to see how stable soils are in different parts of the landscape. You can use it for rivers to figure out how fast they’re cutting down through the landscape.”

Studying natural ecosystems

Today much of the work in Willenbring’s lab continues to ask questions about time, both on geological and modern scales. 

Her research in the Life and Landscape Lab seeks to understand the evolution of Earth’s surface – especially how landscapes are affected by tectonics, climate change, and life. She and her research group use geochemical techniques, high-resolution topographic data, and field observations, and, when possible, couple these data to landscape evolution numerical models and ice sheet models. 

“The techniques we use in my group are pretty wide ranging, but they all share a common goal: to understand how the world works even without any changes, which involves a lot of randomness. Once we understand natural variability, we can try and understand how a change in, for example, sea level, might impact how fast a coastline erodes.” 

She doesn’t attempt to simulate natural environments in the lab and instead relies on data collected from the ecosystems themselves, Willenbring said. “We do lab work in order to get data, but we don’t typically run a ton of lab experiments. We try to pose questions using natural experiments. For example, we might measure soil erosion rates on a south-facing slope and a north-facing slope in the same valley. The south-facing slope gets sun at a hotter part of the day, which affects water availability and plants, which then affects the soil.” 

The researchers will go to a place they want to understand, collect samples and record extensive measurements, and then take a data-first approach to form a theory. That work involves bringing dirt into a clean lab that is designed to minimize contamination while the researchers separate and purify isotopes. One of their main tools involves measuring isotopes to understand how long landforms were exposed to cosmic radiation from space.

Like her work on environmental contamination and coastal cliff retreat, many of Willenbring’s research ideas have been inspired by her immediate surroundings – a pattern that harkens back to her days on her family’s farm.

“I could hike the distance between where I lived and the Badlands, and I remember always thinking, ‘I wonder what’s the difference between here and there?’” Willenbring recalled.

Blazing a trail of activism

Before she found her niche in cosmogenic nuclides, Willenbring studied the history of the Antarctic ice sheets and spent the austral summers of 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 in the Dry Valleys.

After enduring harassment in the field, which she later spoke out about in the hopes that it would help other women in the geosciences, Willenbring endeavored to get as far as possible from Antarctica, pursuing research in the Arctic. Since then, fieldwork has brought her to Puerto Rico, Argentina, Canada, and California.

Although Willenbring has spent decades exploring the geologic history of soils, she is also intrigued with the way soil is intricately intertwined with people.

A big part of cementing that interest involved becoming a mother in 2013. Like deciding to become a vegan after slaughtering hundreds of animals as part of farm life in North Dakota, bringing a child into the world made a lasting impact on Willenbring’s trajectory.

“Having a daughter made everything kind of come into focus about how important the future is and what I want the world to look like for her.”

“Whereas before a lot of my work was sort of esoteric and not too applied or relevant to human lives, I’ve kind of transitioned to doing things that urgently matter,” Willenbring said. “I may be able to radically change the future, and a lot of my current and future work is with that challenge and optimism in mind.”

Willenbring was inspired to make that shift after she landed her first job as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. There she was exposed to a different kind of food poverty than what she had grown up with – and found her passion for linking surface processes with human health outcomes. 

“I was kind of shocked that in the United States, the way we’ve located pollution is to send little babies and kids out into the environment, let them experience it, eat it, lick things that fall on the ground, and then we take them to the doctor and take some blood to see how much they’ve been poisoned,” she said. “That just seemed so perverse and backward to me, that we’re not being more proactive about going out into neighborhoods to figure out where pollution is.”

So she banded together with a group of artists known as the Future Farmers and started a citizen science campaign called Soil Kitchen to test the urban environment for lead and other metals. The effort has since expanded to other urban areas and become a national program that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) renamed Soil Shop.

She said the project is the result of her internal compass that says to take the next step and ask, “Well, what could I do?”

Since then, Willenbring has pursued research on the movement of asbestos in soils, questioned the EPA’s asbestos remediation strategies, estimated long-term cliff loss in Southern California, and more. She joined Stanford in 2020 after working as an associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

“I’ve been thinking about the looming sustainability and climate crisis for a long time,” Willenbring said. “There’s still so much that we can do together to make things better.”

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