Scholar with a backpack

Smith travels the world looking for the faint environmental traces left by prehistoric peoples

Jennifer R. Smith

David Kilper

Jennifer R. Smith, PhD (left), associate professor of earth and planetary sciences and of environmental studies, both in Arts & Sciences, shows Samantha Bova, a senior in earth and planetary sciences, a map of one of Smith’s field areas, the Kharga Oasis, in the western desert of Egypt. The map, made in the 1930s by British explorers Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor Gardner, “was so accurate I was able to interpolate coordinates off of it and put them into GPS and find some of their camps,” Smith says. “When we got there, we found artifacts labeled in spidery pencil script that they had had to abandon when they broke camp. That was 70 or 80 years ago.”

Talking to people who know Jennifer R. Smith, PhD, associate professor of earth and planetary sciences and of environmental studies, both in Arts & Sciences, you soon realize that it might be unwise to tell her something is difficult or can’t be done.

When she was a second-year graduate student, a new technology became available that made it possible to create field maps from satellite signals, says her dissertation adviser Robert F. Giegengack, PhD, professor emeritus of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania. The user carried a roving unit to take coordinates that then could be downloaded into a software program to make maps.

“Jennifer went up to the Canadian Arctic with the roving unit strapped to her back,” Giegengack says, “and the guy who was running the project said to her, ‘This is ridiculous; you can’t possibly know how to operate this thing.’ But she sat in the tent every night working with it and she built a beautiful map.

“So, when she came back, we made her teach a course in this technology, which she had taught herself from trial and error, Giegengack says.

“Another time, Jennifer and I were in Belize,” Giegengack says, “trying to understand the water resources of the classic Mayan city-states, when I noticed that the river we were studying was precipitating calcium carbonate.

“Sometimes when I’m in the field, I get carried away,” Giegengack says. “So I waded out in the river along the top of a travertine feature. The water got deeper and deeper and deeper, and I took off my backpack and held it over my head.

“All of a sudden, I said, ‘Wait a minute. If the water is up to my chin, where is it on Jennifer?’

“I turned around and looked back, and she was leaping out of the water with her backpack over her head to see where I was, and then surging on ahead with her head underwater.

“So I turned around and dragged her out of the water.”

Smith attributes her reluctance to walk away from a challenge to her dad, a pipefitter.

“The surest way to get him to do something is to tell him he can’t,” she says.

“It was my dad who got me into the martial arts as a kid,” Smith says. “I studied taekwondo and got a black belt as a 12-year-old.”


Classic field worker’

In her research, Smith uses the tools of classic earth science to address questions of archeological interest.

For her doctorate, she studied the spring deposits that precipitated along the limestone escarpment above the Kharga Oasis to the west of the Nile valley. The deposits record periods in Egypt’s past when rain fell and replenished the local groundwater and spring water flowed across the Sahara. Trapped in the thick deposits draped over the escarpment are ancient stone tools left by people who ventured into the area during wet periods.

By analyzing the deposits and the tools, Smith demonstrated that the Sahara alternated between wet and dry periods roughly every 20,000 years and repeatedly would have offered modern humans a survivable route out of Africa into Asia and Europe.

More recently, she has been part of a team trying to reconstruct a meteorite impact or mid-air explosion that may have taken place between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago at the nearby Dakhleh Oasis.

Black vesicular glass found at the oasis only could have formed at extremely high temperatures, like those that might have been reached during an impact. The impressions of reeds on the underside of the glass fragments show that the impact occurred during a wet period when the oasis was probably inhabited.

“It wouldn’t have been a huge event,” Smith says. “It would probably have been noticeable only to the people living in that region, but it would have been a very bad day for them.”

Characteristically, she adds, “I wish we understood it better. Let’s just say we currently have no other viable explanation for the glass.”

“Smith,” Giegengack says, “lacks the neurocircuitry that would allow her to misrepresent something. She is absolutely straight, and it’s so enormously refreshing. You ask her any question and she stops and thinks about it — she thinks about it — and she tells you the best answer she knows, every time. There’s no spin, no excuses. I’ve never heard a defensive statement out of her.”

“She’s one of those people who love to be in the field and enjoy the challenges and rigors and opportunities of field work,” says her colleague T.R. Kidder, PhD, professor and chair of anthropology in Arts & Sciences and professor of environmental studies. “I think she is a classic field worker.”

Smith has done field work in Belize, Axel Heiberg Island (a Canadian island), Egypt, Croatia, Sudan, Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Dubai, Ethiopia, Greece and Bolivia.

“She’s in constant demand,” Kidder says. “People really want her to be the go-to person on their project.”

Living up to her mom’s example

History Channel

Tales from the field: Smith tells great stories about misadventures and near-death experiences in the field. To hear some of them, click here.

Smith, like most geologists, routinely takes her students on field trips to observe geological features firsthand.

The reservoir breach at the Taum Sauk hydroelectric power station in 2005, for example, gave her class the opportunity to see the scour basin created by the release of a billion gallons of water in 12 minutes.

Smith particularly enjoys the moments on field trips when everything falls into place for a student, who suddenly realizes he or she can read the land that once was blank and unmeaning.

“As a teacher, I’m still trying to live up to my mom’s example,” Smith says.

Her mom, who taught parochial school in her hometown of Trumbull, Conn., was the kind of teacher everyone remembers, Smith says, the one who made a big difference in their lives.

Smith “has been a remarkable contributor,” Kidder says. “I can’t even begin to think how many dissertation committees she’s sat on.”

“She’s one of our faculty who does it all, and how she finds the time and ability, I don’t know,” Kidder says.

Fast facts about Jennifer R. Smith

Degrees: AB magna cum laude, earth and planetary sciences, 1996, Harvard College; ScM, Mayan geoarcheaeology, fluvial geomorphology, 1998, University of Pennsylvania; PhD, quatenary paleoenvironments and paleoclimatology, 2001, University of Pennsylvania
Came to Washington University in: 2002. She was promoted to associate professor in July 2009.
Featured in: “How the Earth Was Made: Sahara,” a History (formerly The History Channel) documentary
Months in the field per year: Two or three
Aspires to: Regain the black belt in taekwondo
Always packs: Her Kindle. It weighs a lot less than books.