Q & A with Dr. Jennifer Fehrenbacher

I started a quarterly newsletter in my role as the Communications Officer of Oregon State University Women in Science. Each quarter, we feature a leading Oregon State University woman in science. In February, we featured Dr. Jennifer Fehrenbacher. Below is my Q & A with her.


Dr. Jennifer Fehrenbacher is an Assistant Professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry discipline group. Jenn and her family moved to Corvallis this summer from Davis, California where she worked as a postdoc and then research scientist at the University of California Davis. I recently sat down with Jenn to hear about her journey from Chicago, Illinois, where she grew up, to Oregon State University.

How did you become a scientist?

I have been interested in science since I was a little kid. My Dad was a gear manufacturer – neither of my parents went to college – but my Dad had a strong interest in science. He often woke my two sisters and me up in the middle of the night to look at the moon and stars through an old telescope, and we watched episodes of Nova together. My mom got me science magazines. I also had GREAT teachers. My 8th grade science teacher, Mr. Scariano, was amazing – I will never forget him. He made science FUN, and that got me started on my path.

I started undergrad thinking I would be a biologist, but got turned off from classes that were too hard, too fast. I changed my major to Geology, and studied hard rock petrology my senior year with Dr. Jonathan Berg. I analyzed mantle xenoliths [clasts of mantle rocks entrained within magmas] using an electron microprobe at the University of Chicago and slept on the floor of the lab to collect my data. At that time, I had no intention of getting a PhD. I enjoyed my research, it was fun, and other people’s excitement for science was contagious. I graduated, and got a job at Argonne National Laboratory. Then I left science and worked for a tech company. After three years I couldn’t wait to get back to science.

How was your journey through graduate school and postdoctoral research?

I started graduate school with a three month old, and my daughter was born two years into graduate school. Being a mother and a graduate student was challenging – the other graduate students socialized on weekends while I would head home to watch Finding Nemo for the eighteenth time with my kids. I got through the many challenging times that came up because my work is rooted in what I love to do. I also had an amazing support system with family nearby and a really supportive partner.

My PhD research focused on studying fossil foraminifera [‘forams’ are single celled marine protists that secrete a calcite shell]. After I graduated I had the opportunity to join a project as a postdoc where I could work with living forams. Dr. Howie Spero at the University of California Davis had one field season left on Santa Catalina Island, California and I had the opportunity to join the research group. I wanted to learn how to grow deep-dwelling forams. At that time no one was really growing these species because they aren’t as easy to grow in culture as the more commonly studied shallow species. But the deep dwellers are really important in climate research. I was also driven to understand what causes changes in the chemistry of their shells since I spent a good portion of my PhD research studying this in fossil shells.

When I was in graduate school almost everyone I knew got jobs right away or after a one-year postdoc. California was going to be my family’s one-year adventure, but that isn’t how it worked out. One year turned into five, and that turned into ‘I’m not leaving Davis until I have a permanent job’ because I didn’t want to move my kids away from their phenomenal group of friends. Thankfully my kids are resilient. If they weren’t I might not have moved to Corvallis. I think this is an example of some of the challenges in academia for a scientist-mom.

I also don’t know what I would have done without the mentors I had during my postdoctoral research position, who are still my mentors today. And it was essential for me to have more than one mentor! Not all mentors give the same advice, and getting multiple perspectives is useful. I have also found support as a new faculty member in CEOAS. Getting together with other new faculty and having a chance to talk about challenges we face helps to normalize challenges – you realize that you are not the only one facing personal doubts.

What research and projects are you especially excited about right now?

I work to understand and explain changes in the Earth’s climate and oceans using data from microfossils (primarily forams). The chemistry of their shells varies with the environmental conditions they grow in (e.g., temperature, salinity, pH) and fossil specimens are used to reconstruct these growth conditions. I study living specimens to better understand how growth conditions alter the chemistry of their shell so that we can improve their usefulness in paleo-climate research. I also want to understand how future climate change might affect their ability to build their shells.

Forams are one of the most widely used proxy ‘tools’ we have. Using forams as tools we can ask questions like: What was the temperature of the Earth in the past? What was the pH of the ocean like in the past? If we can understand more about how forams build their shells, then we may learn more about what controls other elements of the Earth’s past. This is important because we can use these recorders of the Earth’s climate to learn about the effects of future climate change.

I’m also thrilled to be a new OMSI Science Communication Fellow, and am excited to learn how to talk about my work to non-scientists and broad audiences too. I recently took the Up-Goer Five challenge after one of my mentors posted the challenge online. The challenge is to explain your research using the ten hundred most common words: (yes, ten hundred = 1000, but ‘thousand’ is not one of the most common words, so is not allowed). The idea is not to dumb your science down, but to teach you to learn to reword your science in a way that is more accessible to non-science audiences. This editor makes it easier. Here’s mine:

I use the hard parts of simple tiny animals that live in water to understand how the worlds water has changed in the past and how it might change in years to come. I also grow these tiny animals in controlled places to get a better understanding of the relationship between the water these animals grow in and what makes up their hard parts. In many years these tiny animals might have a hard time making their hard parts because the worlds water is changing in a way that may make it harder for their hard parts to form.

(example words not allowed: shell, earth, climate, difficult, solid, calcite, ocean, etc.)

It is a fun time to be a scientist!


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