Breaking rules to create new career paths
“The thing I like most about Cornell Engineering,” says Jen Schmidt ’14 SES, “is that all of my professors have been insane—but in a good kind of way. They all love what they are doing, so you have no choice but to love it too.” When you listen to Schmidt talk about what she does, it is obvious that some of her professors’ enthusiasm and dedication have rubbed off on her. Schmidt’s major at Cornell is Science of Earth Systems Engineering, a program which will graduate just six students this year. “I study biogeochemistry, which combines life and the environment and how they interact,” says Schmidt.
When Schmidt first got to Cornell in 2010, she wanted to be a mechanical engineer and use that degree as a springboard to working for NASA. “But by the end of sophomore year,” says Schmidt, “I wanted something more hands-on. You can’t really touch stars.”
It should not be surprising that there are only six students pursuing a degree in Science of Earth Systems Engineering; the field of earth system science has been around for fewer years than Jen Schmidt has been alive. The field traces its roots to a 1996 workshop convened by the American Geophysical Union, the Keck Geology Consortium, and the National Science Foundation. At the time, chemists, physicists, biologists, botanists, meteorologists, climatologists, geographers, geologists and others had been separately and steadily building impressive bodies of knowledge. The workshop’s final report recommended that the National Science Foundation develop a curriculum that transcends disciplinary boundaries and treats the Earth as an integrated system, bringing these fields together.
This systems approach to studying the Earth makes perfect sense to Schmidt. “When you actually sit down and try to model a system—even something as ‘simple’ as a field of corn—you suddenly reveal how complicated everything is.”
Schmidt does not regret her first two years at Cornell spent taking classes toward a degree in mechanical engineering. “The intro classes are like academic bootcamp. Even if you don’t go into an engineering field you still learn to think like an engineer,” says Schmidt. “You learn how to break down a problem without feeling a lot of stress.”
Along with a love of science, Schmidt also has a huge place in her heart for the Disney World and Epcot theme parks in Florida. While growing up, Schmidt’s family has traveled to Disney many times from their home in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And while the link between earth system science and Disney World may not be obvious to you, Jen Schmidt saw a clear connection and followed her heart with a letter to Disney following a visit to Epcot a few years ago. Her letter found its way to the person in charge of internships and before long, Jen Schmidt had landed a six-month internship in the Creative Greenhouse at Epcot’s Living With the Land Pavillion.
“I chose the Creative Greenhouse because it had the engineering/problem-solving aspect to it,” says Schmidt. “I am interested in halophytes, which are plants that grow in salt water. There is little farmable land left that is not already being used and we need to look at other ways to improve production.” Now that her internship is over and Schmidt is back on campus in Ithaca, she has begun working in the USDA greenhouse and lab. Next year, Schmidt plans to get a Masters of Engineering degree from Cornell Engineering.
Before she got to Ithaca, Jen Schmidt did not know she wanted to explore ways to grow food more efficiently. Cornell Engineering has been flexible enough to allow her to follow her own interests and chart a course for a career spent making the world a better place. “A lot of my classes at Cornell focus on really relevant topics like climate change. One of the biggest problems we’re facing right now is figuring out how to grow enough food in less-than-ideal conditions to keep up with the growing global population,” says Schmidt. “I want to take the engineering approach to problems I have learned at Cornell and apply it to food production. When I first got here, I had no idea this was what I wanted to do.”