Environmental Scientist: Dr. Jennifer Burney

Environmental Scientist: Dr. Jennifer Burney

Profile of 2011 Emerging Explorer and environmental scientist Dr. Jennifer Burney.


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Health, Earth Science, Experiential Learning

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At the time this was written in 2011, Jen was a National Geographic Emerging Explorer researching the connection between climate change and hunger. This involves many different factors: weather, crop prices, smog, nutrition, fuel costs, health care, roads, family income, melting glaciers, and more.

Early Work
Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States, Jen always had an interest in the outdoors. She took part in her high school’s outdoor education programs, and enjoyed camping and backpacking.

Jen also excelled in science. She studied physics at Harvard University, integrating science with its impact on American history. She later earned a Ph.D. from Stanford University, where she focused on astrophysics.

Most Exciting Part of Your Work
“I love my job. I’m a scientist, so I still ‘dork out’ with the data ... but I also get to go into the field.”

Most Demanding Part of Your Work
“Dealing with climate skeptics!”

How Do You Define Geography?

“Global variation—in climate, culture, food, language, you name it.”

Jen’s work addresses both human geography (hunger) and physical geography (climate). Food prices, she says, are one of the most familiar ways these concepts interact. “A one-degree change in climate can lead to a 1 percent change in food prices,” she says.

Global food prices force consumers to be aware of international weather patterns. “Indian consumers are afraid of drought in Australia,” Jen says, because India imports tons of grain from Australia.

Jen says agricultural technology can “help us use resources more efficiently. ... We have improved varieties of crops,” and genetic modification has created “well-adapted species.” These species of crop may reduce reliance on irrigation, conserving water resources. Other species may require fewer fertilizers or pesticides, reducing runoff. Still other species may be able to tolerate diverse climates, lowering transportation and storage costs for farmers and consumers.

Simple cooking technology can also have a great impact on the environment and consumers. Jen and her team have worked with residents of northern India, for example, to replace their traditional cook stoves with more sustainable models.

“Traditional cook stoves rely on biomass fuels such as wood and dung,” she explains. “Combustion is incomplete, so a lot of black carbon (soot) is emitted. Inside homes, the sooty air causes terrible respiratory infections. Outside, it can alter monsoon cycles, speed glacial melting, and almost equal the impact of longer-term greenhouse gases. In contrast, the improved ventilation and efficiency of fully combusting eco-stoves significantly limit emissions and cut fuel use by up to one-half.”

So, You Want to be an ... Environmental Scientist
Jen encourages students to take economics classes, as well as those in science and math. “These things do not happen in a bubble, and there are always economic impacts.”

Get Involved
“Starting a garden is a great way to understand the process of how food is grown, and to begin thinking about food sources.”

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National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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