For Jennifer Wenner, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is where geology and creativity meet.
Wenner is a creative and curious person at her core, she played outside a lot as a child and had parents who encouraged her to pursue education.
“It wasn’t even a question I was going to go to college,” said Wenner, who was raised by parents with advanced college degrees.
But Wenner, who now has a doctorate from Boston University, didn’t always know she’d pick a career choice that revolved around science.
“’Girls don’t do science.’ That was always the attitude,” Wenner said. “There are lots of things that work against women scientists, I think that’s culturally speaking. But, everyone can learn to think the way a scientist does.”
And Wenner, a geology professor at UW Oshkosh, certainly thinks like a scientist; she is one, a creative one.
“You have to have creativity in science. You have to be able to imagine what is possible and test that by gathering evidence,” she said. “Sometimes the answer you get is ambiguous—I try to convey that to my students that sometimes we just don’t know the answer. And, ambiguity allows for creativity.”
Outside of her time in front of a class, Wenner spends much of her time being creative—out in the field doing research on volcanoes or mentoring students through research opportunities of their own.
“Part of the reason I came to UWO is that there is only an undergraduate geology program. I’m passionate about undergrad research; I don’t think you can call yourself a scientist without doing research,” said Wenner, who teaches courses in physical geology, mineralogy, geochemistry, igneous and metamorphic petrology.
Wenner said there is something satisfying about leading and mentoring students through research projects. She likes watching a student pick their topic and explore their way through it, she said. She also said she really enjoys the relationship she develops with each of her students through their own research endeavors.
“Research gives them the opportunity to know what it is really like to be a scientist,” Wenner said.
Of course, as a scientist, Wenner does a lot of research of her own. A recent project takes her to Northern California to study volcanoes; she is currently involved in looking at a series of nearly 40 volcano clusters and is trying to understand – through research–how they evolve, erupt and how lava gets to the surface. As part of this research, UW Oshkosh students are also given the opportunity to go into the field with Wenner.
In the past, Wenner’s crustal research has taken her to ancient and modern volcanoes in California, Oregon, Missouri, Wisconsin, Washington and New England. Since 2001, approximately a dozen students have traveled with Wenner to complete a variety of field and geochemical projects dealing with the generation and evolution of continental crust. Each of these students received grants to complete the research and many of them have presented the results of their research at national and regional meetings.
“The idea of the way the Earth really works wasn’t understood until around the 1960s,” Wenner said. “This gives Earth scientists the freedom to explore what observations mean and that’s really fun.”
Wenner’s ultimate goal—as it relates to her students—is to show and prove that science isn’t boring.
“Some things we know the answer to and some things we don’t,” Wenner said. “You have to have the sense of wonder, you have to wonder why. You have to want to explore, ask questions, find answers and wonder how to find out. That’s part of what I like about science—the exploration and, of course, the ability to be creative.”