• Real-World Geography: Dr. Jennifer Burney
    Jennifer Burney (left) is an environmental scientist.

    Photograph by Zacharie Sero Tamou

    By National Geographic Staff

    Monday, August 29, 2011

    Jen is 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, 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.”

    GEO-CONNECTION


    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 1 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.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    agricultural technology Noun

    the art and science of complex machines used to perform tasks associated with farming and ranching.

    astrophysics Noun

    study of the composition of matter and the activity of radiation in space.

    biomass Noun

    living organisms, and the energy contained within them.

    black carbon Noun

    sticky black particles produced as some fuels, such as coal and wood, are burned. Also called soot.

    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    climate change Noun

    gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate change
    climate skeptic Noun

    person who does not believe human activity contributes to the process of global warming.

    combustion Noun

    burning, or the process of a substance reacting with oxygen to produce heat and light.

    concept Noun

    idea.

    consumer Noun

    organism on the food chain that depends on autotrophs (producers) or other consumers for food, nutrition, and energy.

    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    diverse Adjective

    varied or having many different types.

    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    dung Noun

    manure, or the excrement of animals.

    economics Noun

    study of monetary systems, or the creation, buying, and selling of goods and services.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    encourage Verb

    to inspire or support a person or idea.

    farmer Noun

    person who cultivates land and raises crops.

    fertilizer Noun

    nutrient-rich chemical substance (natural or manmade) applied to soil to encourage plant growth.

    food Noun

    material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food
    fuel Noun

    material that provides power or energy.

    garden Noun

    area of ground where food, flowers, and other plants are cultivated.

    genetic modification Noun

    process of altering the genes of an organism.

    glacier Noun

    mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: glacier
    grain Noun

    harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: grain
    greenhouse gas Noun

    gas in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone, that absorbs solar heat reflected by the surface of the Earth, warming the atmosphere.

    health care Noun

    system for addressing the physical health of a population.

    history Noun

    study of the past.

    human geography Noun

    the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.

    hunger Noun

    the need for food.

    import Noun

    good traded from another area.

    income Noun

    wages, salary, or amount of money earned.

    integrate Verb

    to combine, unite, or bring together.

    irrigation Noun

    watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.

    Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation
    language Noun

    set of sounds, gestures, or symbols that allows people to communicate.

    monsoon Noun

    seasonal change in the direction of the prevailing winds of a region. Monsoon usually refers to the winds of the Indian Ocean and South Asia, which often bring heavy rains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: monsoon
    nutrition Noun

    process by which living organisms obtain food or nutrients, and use it for growth.

    pesticide Noun

    natural or manufactured substance used to kill organisms that threaten agriculture or are undesirable. Pesticides can be fungicides (which kill harmful fungi), insecticides (which kill harmful insects), herbicides (which kill harmful plants), or rodenticides (which kill harmful rodents.)

    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    physical geography Noun

    study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

    physics Noun

    study of the physical processes of the universe, especially the interaction of matter and energy.

    reliance Noun

    dependence.

    resource Noun

    available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

    runoff Noun

    overflow of fluid from a farm or industrial factory.

    Encyclopedic Entry: runoff
    significant Adjective

    important or impressive.

    smog Noun

    type of air pollution common in manufacturing areas or areas with high traffic.

    Encyclopedic Entry: smog
    soot Noun

    sticky black particles produced as some fuels, such as coal and wood, are burned. Also called black carbon.

    storage Noun

    space for keeping materials for use at a later time.

    sustainable Adjective

    able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

    tolerate Verb

    to endure, allow, or put up with.

    ventilation Noun

    movement or circulation of fresh air in a closed environment.

    weather Noun

    state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

    Encyclopedic Entry: weather
    weather pattern Noun

    repeating or predictable changes in the Earth's atmosphere, such as winds, precipitation, and temperatures.

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