Inaugural lectures are an opportunity for newly minted full professors to share the story of their academic journey, so it is not unusual for childhood stories and other early events to be included as part of the presentation. For most professors, however, that journey does not begin with an account of their grandparents in World War I and II.
Professor Jennifer Reeve is not most professors.
One of Reeve’s grandfathers fought for the United Kingdom, while the other was in the German Wehrmacht. Both were captured during the war (by the Germans and English, respectively), and both were surprised when their children ended up marrying someone from the opposing side. This combination of serendipity and cultural exchange proved to be a running theme of her inaugural lecture on Oct. 20.
After spending time abroad in Kenya, Reeve’s father returned to England to continue his education at Emerson College, where he met Reeve’s German mother. They initially lived in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, where Reeve’s father taught at a middle school. Eventually, the couple moved back to Norfolk to fulfill their dream of starting a farm. Reeve herself spent her childhood in Stuttgart, Germany; Derbyshire and Norfolk, England; and Edinburgh, Scotland, which allowed her to move comfortably between cultures later in life.
Waldorf education, which is based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner and emphasizes a wholistic passion for learning over competitive testing, played a key role in Reeve’s development. Her parents opened a Waldorf school in Wroxham, England, and she later attended the Edinburgh Steiner School in Scotland. There, she pursued interests in English literature, violin and piano.
While her parents’ farm had introduced her to the subjects of agriculture and biology at an early age, it was not until her high school biology class that Reeve developed an interest in pursuing science as a career. The teacher, Mr. Sharman, had previous experience with marine biology and his tales of undersea life captivated Reeve.
Sharman’s account of human hair follicles also captured Reeve’s imagination. “He described them as a forest of strange trees with odd creatures, these mites, crawling around,” she said. The instructor’s ability to make even the mundane seem wondrous whetted Reeve’s appetite for science.
The encroachment of algae into once-clear streams and rivers where Reeve lived also pushed her toward the study of the natural world.
“I decided I was going to save the world,” said Reeve with a laugh.
She ended up pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Ecology at the University of Sheffield. However, the shift in academic focus wasn’t easy.
“My lack of a chemistry background was a severe challenge,” Reeve said.
Even so, she persevered and graduated with an undergraduate thesis on seed pathogens of the European chestnut tree. She was also surprised to find herself suddenly popular, with many international students in particular becoming her friends.
After graduating, Reeve’s path forward was less clear. She worked in various positions, including a job at a department store and as an educator at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.
Eventually, Reeve traveled to the United States for temporary work through the British Universities North America Club. She was inspired in part by an earlier three-week trip across much of the country that had left her eager to return. When an opportunity to extend her stay appeared in the form of a job offer at the Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics in Woolwine, Va., she took it.
Reeve was well-suited to her work there. Biodynamics refers to a form of organic farming devised by Rudolf Steiner, and Reeve’s own parents had used biodynamic methods on their farm. She worked as a lab technician at the institute for almost three years. While Reeve enjoyed the work, she eventually decided to take her learning to the next level.
“I wanted to see if what we were doing at the institute actually worked,” said Reeve.
To that end, she pursued graduate studies in soil science at Washington State University. Her master’s thesis was on the effects of biodynamic practices at a California vineyard. While the results of her research only somewhat supported the effectiveness of biodynamics, she had found a career path that was right for her.
Reeve stayed on at Washington State to earn her Ph.D. in soil science. Her dissertation was on soil quality, microbial community structure, and organic nitrogen uptake in organic and conventional farming systems. While in the program, she also met her husband.
After graduating in 2007, Reeve became an assistant professor at Utah State University, where she continues to study ways to balance productivity, soil health, and sustainability in agriculture. Much of her research focuses on how fertilizers, soil composition, and farming practices affect both producers and the environment, and her subjects range from quinoa and peach trees to the impact of soil management on onion thrips, a kind of insect pest.
Reeve’s future research goals include exploring the relationship between biodiversity and sustainability in cropping systems. She is also studying enhanced soil carbon farming — that is, agricultural practices that can help move carbon dioxide from the air into soil and plant matter.
One thing Reeve made clear about her research was the importance of other people. From the various mentors in her life to the coauthors she worked with to her husband and children, Reeve was grateful for all the support she received along the way to becoming a full professor.
“You don’t do this kind of work without lots and lots of people involved,” Reeve said.
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