Jenna Jambeck, Trash Expert and People Junkie

NCEAS Portraits: Special Women-in-Science Edition

By Jenny Seifert

Some people would call Jenna Jambeck a trash person, but she considers herself a people person. She studies solid waste management because she is fascinated by what people consider waste and then what they decide to do with it.

“Engineering that system is super complex,” she remarked.

An associate professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering, Jambeck says the 2015 Science paper that she led as part of a prolific NCEAS working group focused on marine debris “changed my career and life forever.” A first-of-its-kind study, they calculated that, in 2010 alone, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic that people threw away on land found its way through the waste stream into the ocean, reckoning that amount will only surge if waste management doesn’t improve.

It wasn’t just the paper (or the ten-plus other papers the group has produced) that had such an influence on her, but also the people she built relationships with because of it.

Jambeck believes her involvement with NCEAS also enabled her to have an impact that she may not have been able to have otherwise: produce science that is highly relevant to policymakers. Indeed, she and her working group have made notable waves in terms of raising global awareness around the severity and scale of marine debris and fueling commitment by likes of the World Business Council, United Nations, and Ocean Conservancy to solve the problem.

When it comes to women in science, Jambeck hopes to raise awareness of another sort: women can lead too.

Is there another woman in science who has been influential for you?

JJ: Jane Lubchenco. She is an outstanding leader for our ocean and planet, and advocate for science communication.

What notable contributions to your field have women made?

JJ: In environmental engineering, Debra Reinhardt at the University of Central Florida co-authored the first book on bioreactor landfills and has taught in innovative ways. Helena Solo-Gabriele from University of Miami is a professor, leader, and mentor excelling at community work and communication. I was lucky to interact with both of these women in graduate school. Otherwise, I did not have one woman engineering professor as an undergraduate student.

Many of the top scientists in marine debris are women. That is inspiring!

Is there anything particularly challenging or helpful about the collaborative synthesis model for women?

JJ: I found the model very catalyzing for ideas for myself. I found out I really enjoy synthesizing data and stepping back to see what emerges.

Common group dynamics issues are at play at NCEAS, like anywhere else. For example, women who exhibit typical “male” characteristics can be perceived unfavorably. Speaking out can feel intimidating; this can also have to do with other characteristics, like seniority, too. If there are ample women in a group, maybe at least half, that can help with the imbalance dynamic. But laying good ground rules and mutual respect can really help.

What can institutions like NCEAS do better at elevating the contributions of women?

JJ: Since NCEAS has a network of women scientists, maybe allowing the women of different career stages to access each other for support and mentoring. We did this in our group organically. I would ask women with more experience in my group for advice, and some asked me for advice in different realms. It was really helpful to get trusted advice, and we built long-term relationships by checking in with each other outside of our formal group timeline too.

What is THE issue in women in science that is most important to you?

JJ: This is a tough one, picking just one issue! While I feel we need to continuously call out the mistreatment of women, I want to also say that recognizing and rewarding women for their contributions is important. It normalizes women as scientists and shows us as so much more than our historical stereotypes.

We also need more women at the highest levels of leadership as examples. I am so grateful for the hard work and sacrifice of pioneering women in science, engineering, and leadership. And while there are many women doing amazing things in science, I'd like to see it become even more mainstream for girls and women in the future.

Meet other NCEAS women in science in the Special Women-in-Science Edition of NCEAS Portraits.