Science and science fiction sparked this environmental scientist’s interest in the STEM field
Can a fascination with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” have anything to do with Florida’s sugar cane fields? It can if you’re Stephen Jennewein, whose curiosity of the natural world spanned from watching nature documentaries to attending summer camps to finding inspiration in Gene Rodenberry’s portrayal of science as creator of the Star Trek Universe.
Choosing a STEM career seemed the natural course for Jennewein who, as a young man, often canoed Jonathon Dickinson State Park and Grassy Waters Preserve. In high school he obtained multiple scuba certifications, so he could dive south Florida’s marine environment.
“I can’t think of a time that I wasn’t fascinated by nature,” says Jennewein, who earned a Ph.D. and joined the district in 2017 to become an environmental scientist. “I used to love watching Steve Irwin and was always inspired by his passion for nature. On a simpler note, I worked as a busboy for many years in claustrophobic conditions. After that, I worked predominantly outside at a golf course. I realized then that I need to work outdoors.”
Jennewein’s main mission is to delineate hydric soils to support the district’s Minimum Flows and Levels (MFLs) program. MFLs define the limits at which further water withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of an area.
“My position is broken up into field and office components,” he explains. “In the office, I conduct literature reviews, perform statistical analyses, write reports, process data and collaborate with other scientists. In the field, I perform soil descriptions and hydric soil delineations. Determining MFLs is challenging. If all lake systems were identical, the job would be much easier, but every system is unique.”
Between 2008 and 2017, Jennewein’s field work consisted of trudging through commercial sugarcane fields in pursuit of various data. While the task involved most of the same hazardous conditions and wildlife, it also involved spending time in thousands of acres of monoculture.
“Sugarcane fields have a certain beauty to them, but it has nothing on the springs, rivers and lakes of north Florida,” he says. “It is exciting to experience north Florida’s natural areas and to help preserve them. Water resources and rights are imperative for a functioning society,” Jennewein says, adding that he’s glad to “help make sure there is enough to go around, including for nature.”
Jennewein’s advice to students considering a STEM career? “Find a subject that sparks your interest and passion and study that,” he says. “Learning is far easier when the subject matter is personally interesting. Don’t take out student loans unless it’s necessary, and then just take what you need. If you want to go to graduate school, start looking for assistantships as early as junior year. Don’t be afraid to ask professors if they have assistantships available or need help with research. Get involved as soon as you can.”