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Rising Star - Jennifer Jensen

GIS and the Landscape of Knowledge

When someone is fully engaged in learning about her profession, a diploma doesn’t signify the end of an education. Jennifer Jensen, associate professor in the Department of Geography, continues to make discoveries about her field and herself.

Jensen’s desire for a career in geography has its roots in her family history. She grew up in Sacramento, California, and spent a lot of time hiking and camping in the nearby Sierra Nevada and on the coast. The idea of working outside appealed to her. But after earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Jensen learned that people in the forestry profession actually spend a lot of time indoors, processing data. When she continued on to graduate school, Jensen learned about GIS – geographic information science – and a whole new avenue of exploration opened up to her.

Jensen’s work involves gathering digital information about human, physical and environmental phenomena and using that data to produce 3D models of landscape and high-resolution terrain models. Using drone technology and LIDAR (light detection and radar), Jensen collaborates with other researchers across campus in a range of disciplines, such as computer science, biology and agriculture. Recent research projects have included the breeding habitat of the golden-cheeked warbler, water clarity in Maine lakes, and planning and development issues here in Texas.

“From Dallas to Brownsville, we have a huge transportation corridor. Along I-35 is one of the fastest-growing regions in the U.S., and there has been tremendous growth here in the past 25 years,” says Jensen. “This urban growth has to replace some existing land cover – typically agriculture or woodland forested areas. All this has an impact on nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and hydrologic flow. Being able to document this has a huge impact. It’s valuable information for cities to consider as they plan for continued population growth.”

As Jensen continues to advance her own knowledge, she has learned that neither a doctoral degree nor years of research can guarantee that aspects of your field won’t mystify you. In Jensen’s case, what puzzles her most is the common belief that the technology used in her profession, such as remote sensing and image analysis, is brand new – a misconception the public just can’t seem to shake.

“The technology I use in my profession has been around for a while. It’s just now gaining interest,” she says. “The official definition of ‘remote sensing’ is the observation of feature phenomena without direct contact. Photography has been around a long time. Earth observation satellites have been in orbit since the early ’70s. We have this history. We just don’t have a history of broad societal interest or awareness, or the awareness that people can have a career in this field.”

As a professor, graduate advisor and recent recipient of a Presidential Distinction Award for Excellence in Teaching, Jensen enjoys informing students – especially women, who continue to be underrepresented in science fields – about the opportunities available to them in this field. She aims to be a positive role model and advocate for other women pursuing careers in science.

“Part of my success is due to the excellent support and mentoring I received from multiple people, primarily women, throughout my undergraduate and graduate education. It can be intimidating for young women who enter STEM fields – to look around and wonder why there aren’t more women involved. As a female, I can be purposely visible and actively encourage and support young women who want to pursue STEM careers,” says Jensen.