The path to the Packard: Bronwen Konecky pushes the envelope in climate research

Diva Harsoor | Contributing Writer

After Bronwen Konecky, award-winning organic and stable isotope geochemist, finished her first year of organic chemistry in college, she threw out her notes and sold her textbook.

Photo courtesy of Sean Garcia

Bronwen Konecky was named a Packard Fellow. With $875,500 of funding, she will continue researching the effect of climate change on rainfall and ecosystems in the Earth’s tropical regions.

“I was like, welp, never going to use this again,” she said. Konecky, who has been an assistant professor at Washington University’s Earth and Planetary Sciences department for nearly a year, also tried a few geology classes in college. But she didn’t end up pursuing more because she just “didn’t really like them that much.”

Almost twenty years later, on Oct. 15, 2019, Bronwen Konecky was named a Packard Fellow. With the honor came $875,500 of flexible funding towards her research on discovering the effect of climate change on rainfall and ecosystems in the Earth’s tropical regions.

Extremely prestigious and competitive, the 2019 cohort of Packard Fellows comprises only 22 scientists from all around the nation. According to Barbara Schaal, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Wash. U. has just 11 Packard Fellows, placing Konecky “among a very elite group of faculty members.”

Even before Konecky arrived at Wash. U. in January of 2018, Dean Schaal thought Konecky was an “absolutely terrific hire.” Professor David Fike, a colleague of Konecky’s in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department, agreed.

Konecky, he explained, brought a unique depth in both fieldwork and analysis. She completed her Ph.D. on this and computer modeling of climate systems. Later, she focused her postdoc on this modeling.

“Then the idea of her coming [to Wash. U.] was [to] build a lab that integrated those both, and that for us was truly exciting,” Fike said. Each of these two skill sets is very difficult, making Konecky’s expertise in both rare. Their combination is essential to moving the field forward, which is what makes Konecky’s research so exciting.

Konecky’s career is a testament to the value in taking the road less traveled. Although it has wound across various disciplines and all around the nation, every piece has converged to create an outstanding scientist who does extraordinary research.

As a high schooler in California, Konecky could be found building sets for her school’s theater productions or reporting on meetings of the San Francisco Youth Commission for the school newspaper. She had “no interest in science whatsoever” and “really wanted to go into either arts or communications.”

The catalyzing moment arrived senior year. Konecky was taking AP Environmental Science to fulfill a requirement. For that class, she had to design her own research project on any environmental topic of her choosing. Konecky chose to focus on the ecological communities in tide pools at a nearby nature preserve.

She spent her senior year waking up early to drive down to the nature preserve and observe what she could. Konecky ended up discovering that one area near a steam clearly had less biodiversity than the other areas, which she then linked to contamination coming in from residential areas along the stream.

“That process of discovery and figuring something out and working in really cool natural setting was really intriguing to me,” Konecky said. The next year, Konecky flew to the other side of the nation to Barnard College at Columbia University.

Although she pursued her interest in the environment at Barnard College, she was still following her passion for the arts and communications. In addition to minoring in English, Konecky worked as both a writing tutor and an audiovisual technician throughout college. Even after graduating magna cum laude, Earth and Environmental Sciences degree in hand, she said she still lacked direction.

She had left her home in San Francisco for the hustle and bustle of New York City, and hustle she did. “I think I had four different jobs at the time,” Konecky recalled. She was working for Columbia University updating faculty webpages, still had her old job as an audiovisual technician and babysat “a lot.”

It was her fourth job that put her on the right path. She started working part-time for the Earth Institute at Columbia University, doing “random assorted things.” She eventually parlayed that position into a full-time role coordinating environmental research for an African sustainable development program at the Earth Institute.

While doing fieldwork in East Africa in that role, Konecky found herself talking to small-scale farmers in various rural areas. She was struck by how many of them “were mentioning how difficult it was to deal with rainfall variability. And how they all thought the rains were changing,” but no one had any idea why. As people in this region depend on rain-fed agriculture, “whether the rains come on time or what happens with them is very much a matter of life or death.”

Konecky fixated on the question. She began researching which types of jobs were concerned with finding the causes of rainfall variability over time. Initially wanting to explore data from the last century, she quickly discovered that the climate processes she was interested in operated on the scale of millennia. This process of discovery led Konecky to the field of climate science, and within that, the subfield of paleoclimate, which is still a major research focus of hers today. Then, she looked for scientists who were specifically concerned with rainfall variability in East Africa over long timescales. In her search, Konecky found Jim Russell, a paleoclimate and tropics expert at Brown University who more than fit the bill.

From there, she decided to quit her job and apply to graduate school, although not necessarily in that order.

“I had kind of a nontraditional background, at that point, right?” Konecky said. “I really appreciated that [ Russell] took a chance on me.” Furthermore, Russell was instrumental in helping Konecky transition from the working world to grad school, a transition Konecky found “really rough.” She was taking classes for the first time in four years and working in a lab for the first time ever. On top of that, she was learning a totally new field.

But it doesn’t appear that Konecky finds adversity particularly off-putting. She persevered through a challenging first year and the rest of her Ph.D., becoming an expert in the organic chemistry she thought she had left in college. When Student Life reached out to Russell, he wrote back in less than an hour, explaining how Konecky “has approached research with a high degree of rigor and creativity” and further “has always been a real joy to work with.”

And in addition to all that, Konecky found time during grad school to write, sing and play guitar in a band called SwampBirds, which she describes as “Americana but electric.”

Of course, after a resounding success acquiring this difficult skill set in organic geochemistry fieldwork, Konecky decided to do something completely different after receiving her Ph.D. Konecky had “naively” believed she would be able to incorporate computer modeling into her Ph.D along the way, but quickly found out “that merging of people who work on data and people who work on models is actually a huge challenge in our field.” Her solution to this challenge was to focus her postdoc completely on computer modeling of climate systems. She completed this research at Georgia Tech, the University of Colorado Boulder and Oregon State University. “[I]t was almost like getting a second Ph.D,” she admitted.

At this point, I had to ask the obvious question: How in the world did you do it? But it didn’t seem Konecky was ever fazed by the difficulty of her path. “Even when things were hard, I knew I loved the subject. I knew I ultimately wanted to be doing things that were good for the world.” Throughout her career, Konecky has stayed committed to the question inspired by her conversations with those small-scale farmers in East Africa. Even as it has evolved past what she could have imagined when she first asked it, she has done what needed to be done in the moment, so that she could achieve her goal in the long-term.

Although Konecky’s nontraditional background has presented a challenge at times, Konecky attributes to it the sense of purpose that saw her through her at times roundabout, but ultimately worthwhile path.

With the Packard Fellowship, Konecky is looking forward to spending less time writing and rewriting research grants and more time “thinking big.” Although her colleagues Schaal and Fike both commented on the prestige of the award, Konecky unsurprisingly only has eyes for her goal. She hopes that by 2120, the data gaps about rainfall variability in the tropics will be gone. She also plans to expand the geographic and temporal reach of her research.

“Ultimately,” she said, “I wanted to do research that was helpful to people.” And now she can.

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