Ohio State Newark Faculty Member Pursuing the Puzzles of Climate Change

January 09, 2020

Jill Leonard-Pingel, PhD, isn’t just a geology teacher. She’s a paleontologist, a detective, an advocate, a Sustainability Insitute affiliated faculty and a traveler.

And while the word “paleontologist” might conjure images of wizened academics who spend long hours in labs and scrape away at fossils, Leonard-Pingel’s academic journey has taken her from California to the Caribbean to India and beyond—and then, full of enthusiasm and new discoveries, back to the classroom.

“I do talk about my research with my classes because I want my students to see the diversity of things you can do. That you can do all kinds of projects that are not only fun and exciting but also very important to our understanding of conservation,” Leonard-Pingel says. “Geology isn’t just, ‘Oh, we’re going to identify a rock.’”

Leonard-Pingel has found that The Ohio State University at Newark has provided the perfect setting for her to teach and interact with her students, encouraging teamwork and active participation in classes.

“In my classrooms, we’re able to do a lot of group work and a lot of discussion, so I feel like everyone gets to know each other in the classroom,” she says. “Everyone knows me, too, and knows that they can come talk to me.”

While her official title is assistant professor of earth sciences she didn’t grow up determined to become a geologist, but she fell in love with the field early in her college career, and it’s been her passion ever since.

“The geologic past is kind of like a puzzle or a mystery, where you run out and you can look at the rocks and find clues, but it’s not like the story was just given to you,” she says. “You have to figure out how the clues fit together.”

In her related paleontology work, she is also interested in solving other puzzles—of ecosystem evolution and conservation, and how the environment shapes biological communities. In fact, her most recent pursuit of a “puzzle” has taken her to India, where she has partnered with a team of scientists to research the effects of climate change on local communities—specifically, agriculture. They have been working to take soil samples from lakes in central peninsular India, analyzing the content of the samples to see how the various layers have changed with the passage of time based on cycles of drought and precipitation. Since the success of local farmers’ crops is heavily dependent upon the monsoon season, and because the timing of that season is affected by climate change, understanding the process is vital to farmers’ livelihoods.

“Once we have a better understanding of what drought frequency looks like in the past—how often droughts have occurred over the past 1,000 or 2,000 years—we can also work with climate modelers to provide this information, and they can model up what we might expect for droughts in the future with climate change,” she says. “Then, hopefully, we can also work with policymakers to find out what we should be expecting with that climate change.”

From soil samples to climate models to changed lives: Leonard-Pingel is using her experience to do her part, and she hopes her students will be inspired to do the same.

The Ohio State University at Newark offers an academic environment that’s inclusive of diversity, challenging but supportive with world-renowned professors and access to Ohio State’s more than 200 majors. It’s where learning comes to life. Research, study abroad and service-learning opportunities prepare students for their careers in ways they never expected.

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