Exemplars 10

Going Deeper with Geologist Jennifer McGuire

College of Arts and Sciences

My favorite childhood memories are of long summer days spent exploring the outdoors at my grandparents’ cottage in Port Austin, Mich. Surrounded by the Great Lakes, seemingly endless woods, and the love of a large family, my siblings and I were left to discover many mysteries. Why did the water taste so different at the cottage than at home? Why were the rocks at the beach near our favorite ice cream store big and smooth and dark, while those at the beach at home were small and light-colored? Why did the sweetest wild strawberries only grow in certain fields on the property? 

Not knowing any scientists as a child, I couldn’t imagine that one could spend time thinking about such things for a job. So my questions remained sidelined while I studied math, engineering, chemistry and the humanities. One semester I took an introductory geology course that changed my life. I learned that the answers to my childhood curiosities could be discovered.  That the water we drink, the rocks at the ice cream store and the vegetation we eat are linked in dynamic and systematic ways determined by Earth materials and processes. And, even better, that understanding these relationships was not only a job but also an important way to contribute to society. In particular, I was intrigued by the complex geologic and biologic controls on water quality. I earned a unique Ph.D. in environmental geochemistry and environmental toxicology from Michigan State University in 2002. That same year I began my professional exploration of how Earth materials and processes affect human health, joining the faculty in the Geology and Geophysics Department at Texas A&M University, and creating a graduate level Environ-mental biogeochemistry program. 

In 2008 I came to the University of St. Thomas, coincident with the beginning of a new degree program in environmental science. This was an exciting opportunity for me to transfer my research on the chemistry of natural and contaminated drinking-water sources to a unique interdisciplinary, undergraduate program. Through student-involved field work, laboratory studies and computer modeling, our research group quantitatively assesses the ways the natural flow of water combine with microbiological and geological processes to control water chemistry in clean and contaminated systems. Recent projects include understanding the impacts of landfill leachate on wetland and aquifer water quality and understanding the controls on biodegradation of crude oil released when a pipeline burst just west of Bemidji, Minn. Our work has been funded by major grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and has been published in top journals in the field. We are learning that water chemistry in the environment can change rapidly and that bacteria are involved in many more processes than previously understood, suggesting that, as a society, we may be able to make better use of natural processes such as biological degradation, to assist in the clean-up of contamination and protection of drinking water resources. We are also learning more about the direct connections between our environment and human health. Most recently, my research and teaching have moved into the new field of “medical geology” (how the quality of the air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat are controlled by geologic materials and processes and the impacts “nature” has on our health) resulting in the first undergraduate course in the country on this topic.    

In Minnesota we are surrounded by abundant natural resources, the quality of which is impacted by a variety of linked factors. It is my passion and life goal to train students to think about our natural resources from an interdisciplinary perspective and to contribute to pressing societal water issues facing Minnesotans and the world.  

Going Deeper with Geologist Jennifer McGuire