USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station
Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

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Meet Jessica Wright, research geneticist

A photo of Susan Cordell standing next to a large koa in the Laupahoehoe Experimental Forest.
Jessica Wright, U.S. Forest Service

Growing up, Jessica Wright didnít know she wanted to become a research geneticist, studying the growth and survival of trees to better understand what attributes might make them more resilient in a changing forest. She only knew that she liked science and kept herself open to follow where her interests led.

From initial plans of becoming a medical doctor to earning an undergraduate degree in flute performance to being part of a study investigating astrobiology, Jessica has had a wide range of interests and experiences, all of which, she says, has helped her become the best geneticist she can be.

  • What do you do for the Pacific Southwest Research Station?

    I study forests and how they respond in changing climates. I use genetic tools to understand associations between tree performance and the environments where they came from, which can provide clues into which specific trees and offspring could thrive in a different climate range.

    One way we do this is by conducting provenance tests. We take seeds from different places, and then plant them in a “garden” located at a particular elevation or specific climate zone, and then see how trees from different climates perform.

    This information is useful to foresters who might need to replant trees after a major disturbance, such as a wildfire. We can provide information about which seeds will grow best in a particular area, thinking about current climate, as well as possible future climate predictions.

  • When and why did you come to work for the Pacific Southwest Research Station?

    I came to work for the Pacific Southwest Research Station in 2005, and I was probably as surprised as anyone that I would be working for the U.S. Forest Service as a scientist. I just always assumed that the only people who worked for the Forest Service were forest rangers. I had no idea they had a branch specifically devoted to science and research.

    I was doing post-doctorate genetics research at the University of California, Davis, and applying for professor jobs all over the country. While looking for professor jobs in Science magazine, I stumbled across a job opening for a research geneticist with the Forest Service based in Davis.

    I could hardly believe it when reading the job announcement. It described exactly what I wanted to do, and it took place in the city where I was living!

  • What led you to pursue this field of study?

    In high school, I really liked biology. And although I preferred plant biology to animal biology, I was under the assumption that if I wanted a career in biology, I would have to become a doctor, so I enrolled in college as a double major: biology/pre-med and music performance.

    When I met other pre-med students, though, I realized that wasn't me. But the more biology classes I took, the more it opened my mind to other careers in the field. As for the music major, I was a pretty serious flute student in high school, and it wasn't something I was ready to give up. Incidentally, though, the experiences I gained in controlling my nerves when performing flute in front of people were good skills for being a scientist because you're often asked to present your research at conferences or discuss it in front of large audiences.

    I think I made for a better scientist than a musician.

  • And what about studying astrobiology?

    I wasn't actually studying aliens. My high school biology teacher put me in touch with his college roommate who was working for NASA and studying life living in extreme environments here on Earth to understand how life on other, less-hospitable planets might survive. I worked in his lab the two summers following my high school graduation. His lab was the Lunar Lab — the very place where the moon rocks from the Apollo missions were analyzed chemically (they weren't there when I was working there).

    I also got to do an amazing field trip to Yellowstone National Park studying respiration in bacteria living in the hot springs — a very extreme environment!

    It was my first job besides babysitting.

  • What do you enjoy most about your work?

    I really enjoy getting to interact with forest managers and learning about the decisions they are making. I like hearing about how they manage forests and the challenges they might be encountering, and how my research might be able to help answer those questions.

  • Who has inspired you in your career?

    My high school biology teacher really fostered my interest in biology early on in my life. And my various graduate school and post-doc advisors were instrumental in helping me explore my research interests. But Iíd probably have to say my parents were the most instrumental in my pursuit of the sciences. I didnít know any scientists as a kid, and my parents werenít scientists, but I always remember our family camping trips as a girl growing up in Colorado. They really developed a love of the forest in me. They opened my eyes to the wonder of nature and made me want to know even more about it.

  • What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another field in science?

    Take a lot of English classes. I probably spend just as much time – if not more – writing and editing as I do researching. Stop and focus on your writing skills early on. If you can't communicate your science, then there's little point doing it.

    My other advice would be to take a wide range of classes. I attended a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degrees, and while I had a little catching up to do when I went on to pursue my doctorate, it did give me a range of ideas and knowledge. Stay open to trying new things and avoid limiting your choices too early.

Last Modified: Mar 21, 2017 12:35:16 PM