Babson Magazine

Summer 2018

The Facts Speak for Themselves

Professor Joanna Carey helps protect the environment by providing the numbers that settle arguments and drive policy.

Joanna Carey
Photo: Webb Chappell
Joanna Carey, assistant professor of environmental science

One of Joanna Carey’s bedrock beliefs is that facts speak louder than opinions. The assistant professor of environmental science has a researcher’s keen appreciation for both data and well-informed discourse. Carey’s work focuses on a topic that has too often become political: climate change. She would like people to better understand and address the impact of human activity on the environment. Her research indicates that when such activity alters carbon, nitrogen, and silicon levels in soil and bodies of water, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also is affected, setting the stage for climate change.

But while such a prospect concerns her, she believes that facts, not polemics, will ultimately win the day. “People have to come to these conclusions on their own. I tell my students, ‘I’m giving you the data. You can make your own decisions,’” she says.

From a young age, nature was a passion for Carey. As a child, living outside Rochester, N.Y., she was always drawn to water. “I grew up in the Great Lakes area, and my family sailed. I was skipper of my own sailboat by the time I was 8,” she says.

The future biogeochemist also had an intuitive, almost prescient grasp of her someday career. “When I was 4 or 5, I remember sitting in the back of my mom’s car and seeing pavement being laid somewhere. And I said, ‘Mom, they’re suffocating the earth,’” she recalls. “Now I study soil respiration. I study how soils breathe—how oxygen is taken up by microbes, and how soil microbes release carbon dioxide.”

Carey earned her B.S. in environmental policy and planning at Virginia Tech. She intended to pursue a career in low-impact development, which involves creating systems for runoff that mimic the natural processes of water flow, protecting water quality and aquatic habitats. “And as I studied that,” Carey says, “I started getting more interested in the science and the biogeochemistry behind water quality.” She went straight from college into a master’s degree program in environmental science at Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

She envisioned herself one day running an environmentally focused nonprofit, but at some point, the allure of field work and research took over. She worked for a professor who sent her out to collect samples of river water, and that led Carey to pursue classes in hydrology. Not everyone dreams of standing hip deep in a cold river, filtering water samples, but for Carey, the work was a fit. “I love to push myself physically, and it was fun,” she says, cheerfully recalling a day so cold her samples froze in the syringe.

After Yale, she took a job with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, doing river restoration. “We really responded to constituent concerns,” she says, fielding calls about streams running dry or fish populations disappearing. Carey and her colleagues would investigate the causes behind the concerns. “My knowledge of river hydrology and rivers was solidified there,” she says. “It was a perfect job.”

Carey was on a bus headed to New York, reading a paper about stream flow in a peer-reviewed journal, when she had the thought, “I want to write a paper like this; I want to do this level of science.” Knowing such work would require a Ph.D., she returned to school—this time to Boston University—and earned a doctorate in earth science. Later, she held postdoc positions with the EPA in Rhode Island and at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole on Cape Cod before joining the Babson faculty full time in January 2017.

Much of Carey’s research focuses on silicon, an abundant element found on land and in water; she looks at how human activities are altering the amount of silicon that reaches the ocean, which in turn impacts microscopic ocean plants and carbon dioxide levels. In some cases, human activity has decreased levels of silicon, and in others it has increased those levels. Both have significance. “When we’re modeling future climate scenarios, it’s really important to understand the drivers of carbon dioxide, because they’re shifting,” says Carey. It’s serious science that has sent her to Alaska several times to study the mechanisms driving silicon export and the ways in which human activities and climate change alter the flux of silicon to oceans.

Working at Babson might seem a curious choice for someone with Carey’s interests. But she says taking the job was “a no-brainer.” “I love the environment here. My colleagues are so friendly, and while we are dedicated researchers, I like how our focus is also on the students’ Babson experience, rather than solely on our own research endeavors,” she says. “The students are very smart. They ask good questions. And I knew that if I was going to be teaching at a small school, I wanted to teach at a good school.”

In the course she teaches, “Oceanography,” Carey covers the physical, biological, and chemical processes at work in our oceans. While the objective of the course is to impart a basic scientific understanding of these processes, she also addresses such topics as pollution, fisheries management, and renewable energy.

Carey believes that teaching future business leaders might have an even greater impact than teaching future environmentalists who have already, as she puts it, “drunk the Kool-Aid.” “I try to take students out of their business bubble and make them amazed at the natural world. I feel like there’s an avenue for them doing positive things related to the ocean, as entrepreneurs. There are problems the market could maybe fix,” she says. If her students don’t specifically pursue environmental entrepreneurship, she hopes they’ll at least consider their own environmental impact and how natural systems work. “I try to foster their curiosity,” she says.

And she lets the facts speak for themselves. “When I teach climate change, we look at CO2 levels over time,” she says. “We look at a graph showing where we are now and what’s happened over the last 800,000 years. And that graph is just—well, I don’t need to say anything more.”