Step outside and keep walking until you hit a square patch of dirt, a foot long on all sides. Lying beneath, upon, and above that square foot patch of the everyday is a boggling multitude of interconnected questions – how does the size and texture of the soil impact what can live in the ground? How does what lives in the ground impact the composition and flow of the water through it? How do those factors interface with the churning atmosphere above?
Any of those questions could be the work of a lifetime for a scientific specialist gifted with the resources and opportunities to investigate the minutiae of her chosen field. Investigating and refining, the biologist, hydrologist, geologist, and meteorologist all plug away at bedeviling questions of specialist appeal, and all the time work further away from each other. Well and good, but wouldn’t it be nice if somebody brought all those different brains together on the same patch of dirt, directing their combined specialties with laser focus on one ecosystem, to allow a whole-picture, interconnected view of the forces at work there?
As it turns out, somebody did – Jess Phoenix, a history student turned volcanologist who co-founded Blueprint Earth, a program to unite students from underrepresented backgrounds with field researchers of every discipline to comprehensively catalogue the interactions of life, rock, earth, and water in the world’s ecosystems. It’s a program that not only gives young people chances to do fieldwork who might otherwise never have had that kind of opportunity, and not only allows specialists from diverse fields to witness first-hand how deeply their work can be informed by the specialties of others, but if all goes as planned Phoenix’s program will allow others to create functioning virtual ecosystems that can be either studied now in a lab or preserved in archives so that future researchers can see the alteration of a complete ecosystem over time.
Blueprint Earth harnesses the power of interdisciplinary collaboration to understand the evolving system of the Earth. It’s an approach that makes complete sense in the context of Phoenix’s life story. The daughter of FBI agents, Jess Phoenix was, before coming to the study of geology, a child who loved all manner of sports, a youth who read everything thrown at her, and an undergraduate who studied the art and architecture of the early Roman Empire. She manifestly did not follow the Breakfast Club rule that neatly partitions brains from athletes and artists from scientists, but instead trekked with unfettered enthusiasm from pursuit to pursuit.
After graduating from Smith College in 2005 with a degree in ancient history, she switched fields for her graduate work to one that offered questions more ancient still: Geology. “I was searching for larger scale connections, and I had questions that demanded answers. In search of those answers, I raced horses across the wild expanses of Mongolia. I piloted a submersible to the base of an undersea active volcano. I scoured the Andes for clues about the Little Ice Age. I sampled flowing lava, from an active volcano – the world’s most active volcano (let’s be precise!). And I was able to explore the ancient basins of the Australian outback and I even chased narco traffickers through rural Mexico – they took my rock hammer and I really needed it back.” (TEDx Talk, 2016).
She divided her time between field research and consultation work for the geologic and mining operations of Dassault Systèmes. By 2013, she had a half decade of varied work in both academia and industry under her belt, and might well have continued in that exciting and professionally interesting vein when she decided to found Blueprint Earth to give others the research opportunities she enjoyed, and to bring together a rich array of specialists to have a crack at rigorous multiple-discipline, interconnected profiles of Earth’s ecosystems. Their first study took place in the Mojave Desert and over the last five years, 76% of the program’s research opportunities have been given to women, 54% to ethnic minorities, and 60% to low-income students.
Surely that’s all any one person can expect to accomplish over the course of a life, right? Well, not quite, as Phoenix is currently embarking on perhaps her greatest and most important adventure yet: a run for Congress in California’s 25th District to inject scientific literacy into a legislature in dire need of it. Like other scientists, she was motivated by action taken against the EPA to run for office, to bring “evidence-based policymaking” (interview in Earth Magazine, December 2017) to a government bent on tearing down crucial protections to air and water quality.
Should Phoenix, and other members of the so-called Blue Wave, win, the potential to elevate the political discussion of scientific issues to a plane of facts and theories from one of sound bytes and name-calling is exciting, but come victory or defeat, Phoenix’s legacy is already secure: a multidisciplinary life lived at the core of our biggest questions about ourselves and our planet, and a small army of students inspired by their first brush with fieldwork to take up careers in research and exploration. She has shown what a generalist-specialist hybrid can still achieve in a world spinning rapidly towards hyper-detail, and given us a tantalizing glimpse of what might be when scientists’ passion for truth is matched by their willingness to engage with and inform the myopic messiness of government.
FURTHER READING: Jess Phoenix’s Blueprint Earth can be found here and the website for her Congressional bid here. Earth Magazine did a neat interview with her that is just the merest of clicks away, and if you’re more the sound and vision sort then here’s where her TEDx Talk lives!
(Photos of Jess Phoenix republished on Women You Should Know with the express permission of Jess Phoenix for Congress )