Gregory Jenkins: Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Gregory Jenkins’ interest in meteorology and the environment can be traced back to his own childhood when he would find himself in the library, deciphering weather books or at home watching forecasts on television and wondering why they weren’t correct.

“There’s a mystery there,” said Jenkins, a professor of meteorology. “That has carried me forward. The curiosity about how the environment works has always been with me.”

Now, his work at Penn State in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences brings together his fascination with meteorology, his goal of inspiring and encouraging his students, and his ambition of having a positive impact on underserved areas.

“To me, a big part of the University is about empowering people,” he said. “Young people can find solutions that go beyond the classroom. We can teach them things, but until they make that knowledge more than an inert piece of information, it has no power. So it’s about how we find the power.”

Jenkins, who has been at Penn State since 1996, is currently leading a one-year pilot research project focused on the link between air quality and respiratory health in Senegal, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and Cape Verde. Funded by the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, the project is using small instruments to continuously measure dust particles in the air. They have been installed in parts of Senegal and Cape Verde, with plans for Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. Jenkins said there are currently few to no measurements of how much dust people are breathing in.

Jenkins and his team are at the same time collecting data on respiratory-related illnesses, then comparing the data to pinpoint whether any periods that see dust storms and biomass burning can be tied to the upswings in respiratory ailments. For example, in a separate study Jenkins was part of in Senegal in 2012, research found an increase in the number of cases of meningitis at the time of four weeks of very poor air quality.

For the current study, the team is working with physicians. But, Jenkins said, the challenge is collecting data across the country and not missing outbreaks that happen at the local level.

“The real issue is what does it mean for the people,” said Jenkins.

He grew up in a low-income Philadelphia-area neighborhood, and said he feels a responsibility to serve places where the people are at a disadvantage, whether because of poverty or because they live in a coastal zone. “For me, using my talents to try to help people who are in underserved environments is what I do.”

Other projects include working on a plan to introduce greenhouses for small scale farming in Cape Verde, a country off the west coast of Africa that sees little rain and imports most of its food. More recently, Jenkins spent part of the summer in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on Ascension Island where he was part of the team taking ozone measurements to assess the impact of the large plumes of pollution that converge there.

Jenkins brings that same hands-on approach to his work with students in the classroom and out in the field working on a research project. The goal, Jenkins said, is helping students learn and develop relationships.

“When any student comes into my office, I make it like the neighborhood: Come on in. It’s the way people took care of me,” Jenkins said. “In all my classes, I aim to know every student, because in that classroom, they’re in my neighborhood.”

Students have been involved in the pilot study on air quality as well, with one postdoctorate from Senegal who came to Penn State to work on computer modeling of dust storms; a Penn State graduate student in Senegal collecting data on respiratory illnesses; another graduate student working on respiratory illnesses in West Africa; and another Penn State student working on satellite observations from West Africa.

“I see such a change in the students when they know they are doing something that has an impact on people,” Jenkins said. “I think it does change them to think more broadly about society and what their role is.”

About the Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion

In partnership with the Office of Strategic Communications, the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State is introducing an ongoing series titled Penn State Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion. Profiles will be distributed periodically on Penn State News and will explore the teaching and research accomplishments of featured individuals. The series will cast a specific light on the ways each individual’s background informs his or her work as a faculty member and more broadly as a member of the University community.

Last Updated December 08, 2017