Environmental chemist Jennie Atkins has always been curious about how things work and why things are the way they are. "Chemistry helps me find the answers—from what is in the water to what is happening with the soil temperatures," she says. "To be able to put all the small parts together to begin to understand the bigger picture...it is wonderful!"
Atkins joined the Illinois State Water Survey in 2011. She manages the Water and Atmospheric Resources Monitoring (WARM) Program, which monitors and measures Illinois' waters, soils, and climate.
The projects she is most proud of are "the ones that brought people together for a common goal," such as working with municipalities, industries, state agencies, and environmental groups to develop monitoring plans to address major watershed issues. "Reliable, trusted data are the basis of decisions that impact all of us," Atkins says. "As I’ve told people, we may not agree on the later interpretation but at least we are beginning together at a place of trust."
Generating all of the data needed to understand and address water and climate issues takes more work than a casual observer would think. "The end product may seem simple—a map of Illinois with 19 numbers on it or a graph that shows water levels—but it takes the work of many people to put that map or graph on the WARM website."
One of her favorite parts of her job is being outdoors. "It's not as common as it used to be," Atkins says, "but I still enjoy the times I can get away from the office to collect soil samples or just cut the grass at our climate stations even when it is 20°."
Atkins advises female scientists to be flexible. "Odds are your research focus will change several times in your career. Be open to the new opportunities that come along."