Friedman charts own course through scholarship, service

Jessica L. “Jess” Friedman may not know where she’ll be in five years, but no one can doubt her navigational skills. Between her sailing abilities, GPS mapping systems experience and a highly developed sense of place and purpose, she’ll get wherever she’s headed.

Jessica Friedman learned the ropes on a six-week sailing expedition from Tahiti to Hawaii aboard a 135-foot schooner. An adventurous spirit, Friedman also traveled to Croatia during her time at WUSTL.
Jessica Friedman learned the ropes on a six-week sailing expedition from Tahiti to Hawaii aboard a 135-foot schooner. An adventurous spirit, Friedman also traveled to Croatia during her time at WUSTL.

Friedman, who grew up in Durham, N.C., graduates with a bachelor’s degree in earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences and an impressive list of awards and accomplishments, including twice receiving the distinguished Morris K. Udall Scholarship and an honorable mention on USA Today’s 2007 All-USA College Academic Team.

Along the way, her educational experiences on campus as part of the Pathfinder Program for Environmental Sustainability in Arts & Sciences have been augmented by a number of off-campus and international educational and research opportunities.

Those opportunities included an “education at sea” experience that took her to the South Pacific, an interdisciplinary course to study geological and ecological processes in the Mojave Desert and two summers (and an honors thesis) studying soil loss in Croatia.

She already has contributed to several professional presentations on soil erosion with her mentors in earth and planetary sciences, who recognized her abilities early on.

“Jess has a wide-ranging mind and a real passion not just for the acquisition of knowledge, but for its application,” says Jennifer R. Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences. “From the first time I encountered her, she’s been excellent at synthesis, at reconciling multiple lines of evidence and making a coherent whole out of disparate parts. She’s also always more than willing to try something new, which has resulted in her having a remarkable breadth of experience.”

When Smith said she needed someone to go to Croatia with her, Friedman had no hesitation. She went for two summers, working on an archaeological-geological project and becoming adept at using Global Positional Systems to create detailed maps.

“I wore this GPS unit on my back that looks like I’m communicating with aliens, but what I’m actually doing is communicating with satellites,” she says.

Her next global adventure led her to a six-week sailing trip from Tahiti to Hawaii aboard a 135-foot schooner. On the voyage, during which she learned to sail and perform all the operations of the boat, she designed and implemented a research project on the mixing of saltwater and rainwater and its relation to weather conditions and El Niño. She had little previous sailing experience, but she took to it quickly.

“There were people who wanted off, but there was a core group of us that just really fell in love with it,” she says. “I stayed on for a few days at the end and just helped them get ready for the next batch of students that were coming on, tightening knots and making sure all the rigging was stable.”

College of Arts & Sciences

As focused and driven as Friedman is about her academic and research interests, she’d perhaps be forgiven if she found little time in her day to help others. But that wouldn’t be her.

She serves as a teaching assistant and peer adviser in a campus program called Women in Science, which she designed and facilitated with Barbara A. Baumgartner, Ph.D., associate director and senior lecturer in Women and Gender Studies, and Regina F. Frey, Ph.D., senior lecturer in chemistry and director of The Teaching Center, all in Arts & Sciences.

Friedman also has been heavily involved in the Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline as a trainer and facilitator.

Indeed, Friedman is putting graduate school on hold to help others. She has been accepted into Teach For America and will be teaching middle school or high school math in the Mississippi Delta.

She believes that working with the non-profit organization will give her the opportunity to connect her passions for the environment, education and justice.

As a teenager, Friedman attended The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics — which draws students from all socio-economic backgrounds — and discovered that many students from rural areas were disadvantaged in math and science.

“Because I was exposed to that, it was just really important to me to teach in a rural area,” she says.

So what course will Friedman have navigated in five years? Nothing’s clear except one thing: She will have relished the journey of discovery along the way.