Interviewing Dr. Jennifer Cherrier

Dr. Jennifer Cherrier is Professor and Chairsperson in the Earth and Environmental Sciences at Brooklyn College-CUNY and the Graduate Center-CUNY. Dr. Cherrier is also the President and Founder of Waterway Ecologics and one of the developers of eco-WEIR, a smart-sensored system that augments green infrastructure to control inflow water retention times, maximize pollutant removal efficiencies, and allows for water storage and reuse. Her area of focus is carbon and nitrogen cycling, metabolism, and energy flow.

 What is you background? How did you get to where you can today in your professional journey?

I’m trained as an oceanographer. I’ve done work in groundwater systems, open ocean systems, and in coastal systems. My area of expertise is to study carbon and nitrogen cycling. Studying how bacteria cycle and how that’s related to global carbon budgets. I trace carbon flow using isotopes and look at pollutant loading and so on. I got a little depressed cataloguing all the problems. Around 2010 or so when I was still at Florida A&M University, my research group started working on solutions. We invented a hybrid green infrastructure system called eco-WEIR technology. My university encouraged us to patent it. Then, I decided to crawl up on land because I got depressed cataloguing all the problems that the Land-Sea interface. From about 2013 on, I received Earth leadership fellowship in sustainability, which trains academic mid-career faculty to work at the boundary and try to change and solve problems. I started working more with municipalities, with private developers, and with the scientific community. We focus on a transdisciplinary approach to work on this integrated water management piece.

I’ve been in New York since 2015. My goal was to come to a city that understood the problems that they had with water quality, sustainability of the resources, and are actively trying to address it. That led me to where I am right now, where I’m on land. I am working with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Mayor’s Office, and I was the lead for the storm water resiliency study that became part of Mayor de Blasio storm water resiliency plan. I’m working in that space to try to shift to change and to get nature based solutions, like my hybrid infrastructure system, and other tools in the toolbox to address issues that we’re going to be facing with climate change, increased storms, and so on. That’s the space that I work in. That’s where I’m trying to train all of my students to be, this trans disciplinary space, so that we can really make a change. So that when I’m 80 years old, and in my rocking chair, I can look back and know that I’ve done something to make the world better for my kids and my grandchildren and the next generation.

What obstacles have you faced in your journey as a Women in the Earth System Sciences? How did you overcome them?

Obstacles I face are silent types of discriminatory things. Women tend to communicate differently, we’re also juggling a lot more. The way that I’ve overcome them is to be tenacious, to have really good women role models, and not just women role models, but also really excellent male role models. I think that one of the challenges in the sciences or any career is to get good mentorship and to not put yourself in situations where you’re going to be in a toxic environment. I think it’s that’s a really hard question, I think that I still struggle with it.

I feel that the women that came before me, blazed trails for me, such as women scientists in the 70s, and 80s. Part of the reason I started working close to  the land-sea interface when I start having children was that, I would go to sea with my mentors, women and men who had children, and they didn’t see them often. Then they regretted that they didn’t spend time with them. I learned from their mistakes, I looked at it, and I listened. In the past people used to go to sea and women would be put in a nunnery. Women would be set aside. I think that through the 80s and the 90s, when I was going to school, we blazed trails for the next generation. In modern times, we’ve helped to establish new norms for having children, having a life. We accept that the way women communicate is more collaborative, which is fine. Men tend to engage in a “survival of the fittest” mentality, which is okay because it is a different form of communication. Women would try to adopt that “survival of the fittest” type of mentality, and it can make you angry. I would see that with mentors.

I think it’s important to embrace our own special skill sets, to recognize them, and to try to approach collaborations and communication, knowing that the way that women and men do things is different. The way that different ethnicities do things is different. The beauty of it is that we need to have all those voices. I think that one of the things that as a woman I’ve overcome is not trying to fit a certain mold but just accepting what it is that I can bring to the table. We still have this silent discrimination happening all the time. The trick is to not let those insecurities and that paranoia define how you’re going to move forward. I’ve been in groups of men where they’re ignoring me, and I could take my marbles and go home. I’ve had them [men] sexually harass me and I could accept that or what I could do is to know who I am, and not let that define me.

I think that the trick is to recognize where there are challenges, but don’t be a victim of those challenges and see how you can move forward and surround yourself by people who support you and respect you. Don’t worry about the other people.

What does Women’s History Month mean to you?

I think it’s a thrill. Just like with Black History Month or Women’s History Month, I think that we should be celebrating it all year. It is nice to get to get that acknowledgement. I think that there’s so much talent out there, and so many women that are doing such cool things. It’s a really nice opportunity to highlight everything that we do and to recognize the contributions that women have made to the sciences. One of the things that I always teach about is plate tectonics and Marie Tharp. She was a woman who actually figured it out. She was working with a group of scientists at Columbia. It’s important to learn what we can from these celebrations of all these people and then incorporate it into what we teach the next generation.

What has been your biggest motivation?

I’m a 70s child, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was first established one of the things that I wanted to do was to help heal the environment. What drives me is to to take my science and to make it actionable, so that it can be built upon. I want to get my research and my science out of the ivory tower, and I want to see it in action. I want to see it in action in a way that’s going to help protect our water resources. I’m passionate about our water resources. That’s my main motivation, I want to leave the world a little bit better off than I found it when I came to age in the 70s, for future generations.

What advice would you give young women who are interested in the Earth Systems Sciences?

My advice would be to identify what you’re[the student] passionate about in the sciences. Each of us has our own interests. I’m super interested in biochemistry, metabolism, and energy flow. You need to find that thing that you’re passionate about and work hard. Surround yourself with mentors that are going to help you to progress. By mentors, I mean, they’re going to ask you to hold the hold the bar even higher, to see where you can go. My mentors have done that to me. Know that you can create a niche in that subject you’re passionate about. It’s really important that you’re passionate about the work that you do. Sometimes we lose that passion, when we lose that passion; it’s hard to do the work. Find what it is that you love to do, and know that there’s a place for you. Make sure that you surround yourself with good strong mentors, and take advantage of opportunities that come your way. While you take advantage of opportunities, still stay focused. You can take on too many opportunities, and then you diffuse and juggle too much. Stay focused; find what you’re passionate about. Make sure that you have mentors that will support your goals.