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From California to South Africa: Alumna Anna Jacobsen Shares Her Passion for Science
When Anna Jacobsen (B ’03, SC) was in the fourth grade, she began her first leaf collection to fulfill a class project. She explored her backyard and the woods behind her home with great enthusiasm and eventually collected more than 200 different leaves.
Nature became more than just "a sea of uniform green" to Jacobsen after that experience. What started as a leaf collection has since grown into a promising career in plant science that has taken her across oceans to South Africa on a Fulbright grant, and recently, back to Pepperdine University to share her experiences.
Jacobsen recalls that, even in her childhood, a strong appreciation for the natural world always fueled her curiosity. Born in Illinois but raised in a small town in Pennsylvania, Jacobsen was able to experience nature just by walking out her back door. Her family spent free time getting in touch with nature by exploring and hiking.
Traveling to the Grand Canyon was especially eye opening. "All those kinds of trips help you to see how things differ as you go to different places," she observes. "It’s about appreciating the natural world around you."
Today Jacobsen is a professor in the Department of Biology at California State University (CSU) Bakersfield. Her husband Robert "Brandon" Pratt, also a graduate of Seaver College, is a fellow professor who researches plant ecophysiology. The couple has been happily married for three years.
Drawn together by their appreciation for science, Jacobsen and Pratt also share hobbies that relate to their research, including hiking and camping. And instead of driving a car every morning, the couple ditches the aggressive driving and honking altogether and walks to work. "Living right," she says with a laugh, "eliminates the need for exercise."
Before taking these brisk walks to CSU Bakersfield, Jacobsen embarked on a much longer journey in 2003-2004 as the recipient of a prestigious Fulbright grant. She spent eight months at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, about an hour away from Cape Town. There Jacobsen was delighted to devote her time to researching plant evolution, particularly plant responses to stresses such as freezing and draught tolerance. "Animals can move and walk away," she explains, "but plants are stuck in one place. If things get tough, they don’t have the option of leaving."
Of her first day in the fields of South Africa, Jacobsen recalls how strange it was to not recognize any of the plants there—not even many of the plant families. In the foreign environment of the Western Cape Province, she discovered that although the landscape of the area is very similar to that of Southern California, it is composed of entirely different plants. Learning the names of new plants and being in different world made her research all the more challenging and fun.
One of the goals of the Fulbright Program is to foster academic collaboration across countries. These exchanges of information allow scholars like Jacobsen a chance to share knowledge about plants with like-minded scientists in South Africa.
"It's this great additive experience," she says of this rewarding aspect of the Fulbright program. "You each put something in and put together a final project that neither would have been able to do on our own."
As a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Jacobsen was able to continue the research project she began in South Africa at Michigan State University. Support from the three-year grant began upon her return to the United States in 2004.
Among her many accolades Jacobsen also won an award for best student oral presentation of a scientific paper at the 2007 International Mediterranean Ecosystems Conference in Australia. "At this meeting, you're with a group of international researchers who know what you're talking about, but everyone's coming from a slightly different perspective—different languages and cultural backgrounds, and it was wonderful," she reflects. This summer Jacobsen also won the Dwight B. Billings Award from the Ecological Society of America.
Despite all her accomplishments, Jacobsen says that the most meaningful part of her life is being able to share her passion with students. This past spring an entire family of women—two sisters and each of their daughters—enrolled in one of her classes at CSU Bakersfield. "In spite of many personal hurdles," she observes, "this amazing family of women was able to excel in the classroom. They were some of the most attentive and interactive students I have had.”
Motivated students who sacrifice much to attain higher education impress and inspire Jacobsen. She appreciates the opportunity to share not only her knowledge but also her enthusiasm about science.
"Science is tricky in that it's a lot of work, and you have to really love it," she says. "But being able to take what I've learned and then share it with others—that is really what I find incredibly rewarding about the whole process."
by Julis Navarro