Francis, Jennifer

Research Professor
Areas of Interest: 
Satellite Remote Sensing of Polar Regions, Air/Ice/Ocean Energy Transfer.
My Story: 
Francis, Jennifer A.
Jennifer sailing in Belize with her family
Mark Twain got it right when he said, "If you don't like the weather [in New England], wait a minute." Growing up in southeastern Massachusetts, I've always had a fascination with the wild and variable weather there. My dad had a lot to do with that. Whenever a whopping coastal storm (called a nor'easter) hit, he would pack us into the station wagon and drive to see the boats breaking loose in the harbor or monstrous waves crashing on the ocean beaches. He would also wake us up at ungodly hours to view comets, meteor showers, eclipses, and any other celestial display that graced the sky. I also credit my mom for allowing all sorts of creatures under her roof. I caught and brought home all manner of indigenous creatures, iguanas lived in my bedroom, and a menagerie took over our backyard. I was surrounded by science and loved it from the get-go.

We lived in a tiny town that is big on sailing, with boats of all shapes and sizes packed into its harbor. Our family of four spent many summer weekends exploring the myriad of islands, coves, and inlets that lay within a few hours' sail, and sometimes we ventured farther to the coasts of Maine or Long Island. Some of that salt spray must have found its way into my blood, as the ocean was to become a major focus of my life. 

While I loved the weather and ocean, it didn't seem like a very practical pursuit for a career, so I headed off to college as a pre-med student with my sights set on dental school. Thank goodness my husband-to-be came along. He was a hometown acquaintance and cousin of my best friend, who literally and figuratively swept me out to sea. 

After 3 years at the U. of New Hampshire, I decided to take a detour from the well-worn path I was following. I left school to join my fiance in fulfilling his dream to sail around the world. We purchased an old fiberglass sloop in France, then spent the next two years rebuilding Nunaga in Malta, a tiny country in the middle of the Mediterranean. In mid-1980 we began our five-year circumnavigation. Nunaga carried us safely from the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to Brazil, down around South America, across the South Pacific, around New Zealand and Australia, into the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, back to the Mediterranean, north to the U.K. and Scandinavia, up to within 500 miles of the North Pole, south to Iceland and the Azores, then eventually back to our home port in Massachusetts. During those five years at sea, weather ruled our lives -- it was during those stormy nights at sea, while we were sometimes bombarded by house-sized waves and hadto dodge ice bergs, that I gained my respect and awe for the power of nature: I decided to shift my career from dental school to weather school.

Francis, Jennifer A.
Jennifer during a scientific field experiment on the North Slope of Alaska in 1992

Upon returning to the "real" world, we both dove back into our educations. I entered the Dept. of Meteorology at San Jose State University in California, where I steered my sights toward becoming a high-latitude weather forecaster. As a part of my senior thesis, I wormed my way into a part-time research position at nearby NASA Ames working with Dr. Tom Ackerman, who happened to have some old Arctic data lying around that needed analyzing. I blame him for showing me the "light" of research and making me realize that grad school should be the next port on my itinerary, the University of Washington in particular. As I pursued a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences in Seattle, my research home was the Polar Science Center in the Applied Physics Lab at UW. This is one of the world's meccas for polar research, and I found myself surrounded and mentored by big names in high-latitude science. As a grad student I participated in a field campaign to northern Alaska, where I flew over Arctic sea ice in the university's research aircraft to study how energy and trace chemicals emerging from cracks in ice affect the atmospheric boundary layer. This first-hand, close-up encounter with the Arctic cemented my research interests in high-latitudes -- another world right here on planet Earth.

As my graduate career progressed, the evidence for global climate change became more alarming, particularly in the Arctic. Relatively little was known about this remote and sparsely populated region, however, and few data existed with which to study it. This realization steered me toward satellite remote sensing -- a tool ripe for application to Arctic studies. NASA thought so, too, as they awarded our group at the Polar Science Center a 5-year, multimillion dollar grant to study Arctic climate change with satellite-derived information. After I graduated, this grant opened the door for me to join the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers in 1994, where I have been a research professor ever since. During the past decade, the Arctic and its disappearing sea ice has become an icon for climate change. My research horizon has expanded to include both observations and predictions as well as oceans and high-latitude land. The questions facing my collaborative scientific community require a system-based, synthetic approach to understand interactions between the physical and biological aspects of climate change, thus in my job, I learn something new every day!

Edited by Lauren Miller