Environmentalist encourages women to pursue scientific careers

By Denise CaskeyFebruary 9, 2024

Environmentalist encourages women to pursue scientific careers
Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall environmental specialist Jenny Tolbert, front right, Agrima Poudel and Directorate of Public Works Environmental Management Division Director Tony Taylor, back right, along with volunteers from Arlington National Cemetery, left, help pick up trash near the JBM-HH motor pool and Section 78 at ANC in June 2021 Joint Cleanup Event as part of the Clean the Bay Day. (Photo by Stacey Rosenquist, ANC) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, VA – Tradition often imposes unrealistic views on what people can and can’t do. Science, for instance. Traditionally viewed as a career field for men, young girls are often discouraged from pursuing their interests in science.

In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed Feb. 11 as International Day of Women and Girls in Science to highlight the vital role women play in science.

The latest research by the United States Census Bureau shows growth in women working in science and other STEM related fields, but that growth has been slow, from eight percent in 1970 to 27 percent in 2019.

For growth to continue, Jenny Tolbert, environmental specialist for the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Directorate of Public Works Environmental Management Division, said girls need to be given the space to explore the different types of science to see what they like.

“I think it's important for girls to have the opportunity to be able to try out different things,” Tolbert said. “I remember when I was a kid, I had a hard time with biology, but I loved physics. We need to provide girls the opportunities to see just how much fun and rewarding the sciences can be.”

Giving girls a voice and making sure they feel heard in the classroom can go a long way toward helping keep their interest, Tolbert said. When she was a young girl, Tolbert recalled she had some great teachers who made learning about science fun.

Projects that required creative problem solving, such as building a structure out of paper and tape that could withstand the weight of 10 books, or finding the best way to build a cage around an egg using toothpicks so the egg wouldn’t break when it was dropped from the top of a ladder, were her favorite types of projects. She said these types of projects were like puzzles she was eager to solve.

Pursuing her passion

Growing up in the Chesapeake Bay area, Tolbert developed a passion for science and the environment early in life.

“Even when I was a kid, I was trying to recycle as much as I could, and I'm all about not wasting,” Tolbert said. “Going into environmental science, my goal was to help protect the environment. I love that in my job, every single day, I'm taking actions to help clean up the stormwater and protect the Chesapeake Bay and the water quality for all our communities. It's great to be able to make an impact like that.”

Tolbert graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental resource management. As an environmental scientist, she focuses on stormwater management.

Through school and a variety of internships, she became an expert in stormwater best management practices.

A large part of Tolbert’s job is figuring out how JBM-HH can use BMPs to help reduce the pollutant levels in stormwater runoff and meet permit requirements.

“I have found it very interesting to try to figure out how to hit those goals with a ton of limitations,” Tolbert said. “(JBM-HH) is not a very large installation. We don't have a lot of space. There are so many challenges. It's been such an interesting learning experience trying to solve that puzzle of ‘how do we hit these marks with all the limitations that we have?’”

BMPs are strategies like the bioretention systems – the wild looking areas – found around the installation and the permeable pavement on the walking trail along the border between Arlington National Cemetery and the joint base. Newer technology is also coming online, such as the tree filter boxes being installed around the Commissary parking lot.

“I think our technology is getting a lot better so that even the BMPs we're putting in are helping to reduce pollutant loading,” Tolbert said. “We are seeing some improvements in the Chesapeake Bay. It's very gradual and it's slow, but I think with these stormwater permits that are requiring everyone to implement new stormwater protection measures it's making a difference. It's great to see all these little things that everyone's doing add up.”

Another part of Tolbert’s job is educating people on the impact their actions have on stormwater runoff.

“There are so many ways that the public can impact stormwater that they don't even really realize,” she said. “So, for me a big part of my job is educating the public so that they know things like the curb inlets don't go to a wastewater treatment plant. They go directly into a stream.”

Facing challenges head on

A woman in science may face a lot of challenges, Tolbert said, such as being the only woman in the room, not being taken seriously and having to repeatedly prove that she knows what she’s talking about.

“Women seem to need to fight a little bit harder to be heard. I don’t mind being the underdog sometimes,” she said.

Tolbert also said she’s fortunate that she’s been able to work with other women in her field who have acted as mentors, and she has seen how they deal with challenges.

Women need to have the confidence that they truly know what they’re talking about, Tolbert said, and have the ability to talk to people from diverse backgrounds. She’s also constantly learning about new regulations, changes and breakthroughs in her field.

“Science, especially environmental science, is always changing. You kind of have to be willing to change with it,” she said.

Scientists are constantly trying to solve problems. Having an open mind and looking for creative solutions to those problems rather than doing what everyone else has done, in addition to possessing a keen sense of detail and a genuine curiosity about the world around is what makes a good scientist, Tolbert said.

Tolbert’s passion for science and the environment is evident in her face when she talks about the work she does. She has one tidbit of advice for other young women interested in pursuing a career in science.

“Don’t let other people limit you,” she said. “You can do so much more than other people think. It can be challenging, but don’t be afraid of the challenge. That’s how we learn and grow. If one science doesn't work out, try out a different one. Explore your interests and see where it leads you.”