Ehrenfeld, Joan

Areas of Interest: 
Wetland ecology and ecosystems ecology, with a focus on plant-soil interactions.
My Story: 
I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in science or nature. My mother deserves the credit. Although she was a violinist and music teacher, and not herself a scientist, she talked endlessly about science and scientists with the greatest admiration. She valued, above everything, the creative use of the mind to explore, learn, and find new ways of looking at old subjects. Science epitomized those values completely. So I suppose it was not surprising that as a child, I took books out of the library about science and scientists; Paul de Kruif's "Microbe Hunters" was one of my early favorites. In the 1950's, as a girl in a Queens, NY public school, this was a bit weird, for sure. But that book was inspiring, and I vividly remember being unable to put it down or stop thinking about the scientific heroes that it described. Shortly after that, Sputnik went up, and the world changed. The call went out for American students to study science, and this message permeated society. I can remember standing around the playground of my elementary school, talking with my classmates about it, and discussing how we might become scientists as a result. 

My mom also loved the natural world in her own way, having been herself a very urban product of Brooklyn, NY. She loved the beauty of trees, and spoke about her love for them frequently. When we finally moved from an apartment in the city (Queens, NY) to a suburban house, she made sure that the large trees around the house were carefully protected while the house was built. She also ensured that my bedroom window looked out into the large, magnificent beech tree right next to the house, and she admired the view every time she came into the room. Although my parents were not hikers or campers, this love of trees and all things living planted a seed, so to speak, about values that eventually grew into the tree of my career choice.

Ehrenfeld, Joan G.
My daughter Kate and I explore the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia on a family vacation.

Throughout elementary, middle and high school I continued as the class geek as I avidly absorbed the science that was offered in school from inspiring teachers. At that time (early 1960's), in a nice suburban school, it was the social kiss of death to be a girl interested in science: my classmates admired me, but at a considerable and often painful distance. But, always encouraged and supported by my mother, I took every science and math course offered, did science projects well beyond the requirements of my classes, and read as much as I could about science and scientists. As a junior in high school, I was accepted to an NSF-sponsored program for high school students, which placed us in research laboratories around New York City for the summer. This was a wonderful experience -- high school peers as geeky as I, a real research lab in which to spend the summer and gain some hands-on experience, and the excitement of being on a large university campus all summer (I was placed at Barnard College, part of Columbia University). And, just to makes things perfect, my advisor for the summer, Dr. Donald Ritchie, was a cellist, and we could talk about music. I had been studying piano and flute for many years, and so we talked about music as much as we talked about fungal biology, his specialty.

My college education, also at Barnard, allowed me to gain the background of science courses I needed, and also gave me opportunities to do research, both during the summer and during the semester in independent projects. I participated in an NSF-sponsored summer workshop on ecology, held at Colorado State University, got a summer job working in a molecular biology lab, and did a research senior thesis that was eventually published (my first paper). These various experiences were crucial in helping me figure out in what scientific direction to go. Although I had originally loved cell biology and microbiology, I realized that I loved being outdoors also, and ecology offered an opportunity to combine science with outdoor activity. So that's what I pursued in graduate school.

My graduate career was complicated by the challenges of personal life: I got married, and shortly thereafter, gave birth to my first child. She was born towards the end of my second year of graduate school, just as I was finishing coursework and starting to plan my research on bees in the southwestern deserts. In the early 1970's, this was a tremendous challenge: there were no such thing as day care centers, moms were expected to stay home with their babies, senior (male) professors simply assumed that motherhood and a scientific career were incompatible. With the support of my husband (himself working hard towards tenure), and the financial ability to give up my teaching assistantship, I managed to carry out my research and get my Ph. D. three years later. I defended my thesis with some pride in having managed to accomplish this, and also being careful to hide my pregnancy with No. 2 until the thesis was safely deposited.

Ehrenfeld, Joan G.
Jane and Kate help core a tree in Vermont, while Jonathan offers encouragement from his perch in the backpack.

The next major challenge in my career was finding a job. My husband had taken a professorship here at Rutgers while I was still finishing my thesis, and we were not about to start moving. Thus, I was not free to search for jobs anywhere but here. Of course, there was no tenure-track position available, and little interest in generating one for me. I was lucky in being hired on a grant-funded project, although it was in a very different area from my thesis research. Talk about steep learning curves! I managed to survive that project, even do a good job on it, and then find a related grant-funded project to work on. I started writing my own grants, some of which were funded, enough to keep me employed on a part-time line. I started taking on a few graduate students who helped get research done and papers written. I was able to subsist this way for twelve years, getting some papers published, getting some recognition from peers in the university (but not much), but also adding two more children to our family (making a total of four). Surviving academically, maintaining my own funding without supportive colleagues, and with four children to care for, was undoubtedly the largest challenge of my scientific life.

At that point, I was very lucky. A full time tenure-track position opened up in the department in which I was housed, and for which I was particularly well suited. The Water Resources Research Institute, a small federal program supporting research on water topics, had been a source of funding for me, and was losing its director. A director was needed, and there were no other likely candidates among the existing faculty. So, when I was offered the opportunity to become a regular faculty member and take on the Institute, I was overjoyed. Supportive senior faculty in my institute (the Center for Coastal and Environmental Studies, soon to become the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences) were vital in helping this happen; my gratitude was deep and enduring.

The next three years presented a new challenge. I needed to get more papers out, get more grants in, start a regular program of teaching, participate on committees, go to meetings, etc. etc. to get a tenurable record, and yet also take care of a houseful of kids, two of whom were still very young. Because I had been working professionally, albeit on a part-time line, for so long, I was given three years to the tenure evaluation, rather than the typical six. Weekends were dedicated to family and were off limits for work, and so everything professional had to been done week days and week nights. Somehow, I managed to survive as both a parent and a professional, as I won tenure and finally felt assured of my career. I took a very deep breath when I was informed of the decision, the first in many years.

Since then, my career has followed a more conventional track. I have been very fortunate in having wonderful graduate students, being able to maintain funding for my research, and being able to follow multiple research directions (wetlands, plant ecology, soil ecology, applied ecology, urban ecology, nutrient cycling). I've been invited to serve on National Research Council committees and boards, giving me an opportunity to affect national policies and contribute to the resolution of environmental problems at the national level. I've served on state boards also, similarly giving me a sense of having contributed to the protection of New Jersey's environment. Of course there have been setbacks and disappointments -- rejected grants and papers, collaborations that didn't quite work -- but overall, it's been a grand ride.

Edited by Lauren Miller