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[ NG Explorer Jennifer Burney on Solar, Snakes and the Future of Energy ]

Jennifer Burney, named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2011, continues her work on agricultural solutions for struggling farmers. She observes, for example, that “as great as local organic food may be in my own kitchen, we’ll never feed the whole world that way. Like it or not, ‘Big Agriculture’ is why we’ve been able to sustain a hungry planet; and thanks to investments in technology, significant climate impact has been mitigated.” One key contribution she made was introducing solar irrigation to farmers in Benin, Africa. The organization that she worked with, Solar Electric Light Fund, is also a grantee of the Great Energy Challenge.

What project are you working on now?
I’m working on a few different things. First, I’m looking at different kinds of irrigation systems for smallholder farmers in dry climates around the world. Do they help farmers and their families earn income and escape poverty permanently? Do they help communities adapt to climate change? Can these systems be environmentally sustainable? Second, I’m looking at the ways air pollution affects our ability to grow food and trying to quantify the agricultural benefits of cleaning up our air. Finally, I’m working to understand and quantify all the different ways energy is used in food production, processing, and consumption. I’m interested in helping chart a realistic pathway for greening the global food system.

(Related Story: “Solar Energy Brings Food, Water, and Light to West Africa“)

Burney explains more about her work on solar irrigation in Africa:

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
I am always very pleasantly surprised by the universality of human experience. I love spending time with people whose day-to-day lives are very different from mine and realizing very quickly that we share many of the same motivations, emotions, and concerns. I have always loved travel for this reason, but it has become so much more powerful for me since becoming a parent. The love that parents have for their children; the desire to protect and shepherd them into a fulfilling life — these forces know no cultural barriers.

On a more mundane note, the biggest physical surprises for me always seem to involve snakes. Snakes like to hide in drip irrigation tubes, in latrines, in wells, and under the rocks I happen to be sitting on. I don’t really like being up close and personal with them, (Apologies to all the herpetologists in the National Geographic explorers’ family!) but they always seem to find me, even on the shortest little hikes. I realized recently that I was born in the year of the snake, so I’ve started trying to think of these critters as my spirit animal.

Have you ever been lost? How did you get found?
I’ve wandered off course a few times when backpacking, but never anything too terrible. Phew!

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
Tough question! There are so many with incredible day-to-day lives and deeply moving stories. For example, I’m particularly inspired by the work my fellow emerging explorer classmates, Sasha Kramer and Aziz Abu Sarah are doing. I’d love to tag along with them for any amount of time. If I were really going to trade places with someone permanently, it’d have to be Mike Fay. I started reading about him in college and I’ve been moved by everything he’s done ever since.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
Unfortunately, I fear that climate change is going to make our world look very different in a hundred years. Then the National Geographic crew will be exploring previously inaccessible and/or newly extreme regions right here on earth. On a more positive note, I think there will be radically new types of energy generation, storage, and transmission; dramatic changes in our roles with the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles; and all sorts of new technologies that make the world a more intimate place and help promote peace and well-being for all. National Geographic will be leading the way in exploring and publicizing these innovations.

Sketch by Burney of herself checking corn and taking notes in the field.

What one item do you always have with you?
I don’t have any one “signature” item, but I *usually* have sunscreen, sunglasses, and water close at hand. Boring, I know, but always useful.

What are you reading?
Mr. G, by Alan Lightman.

What is your favorite food?
Burrito. Also, I’m a native New Mexican, so tend to believe that green chili makes everything taste better.

What are you listening to?
I love all music, but recently have been alternating bluegrass and classical. In fact, I heard the Punch Brothers perform an adaptation of one of the Brandenburg concertos for mandolin, banjo, etc., and I thought it was just about the greatest musical synergy ever.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
Hang in there…in 10-15 years, being a nerd will be cool.

If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
I’d stick some in my kids’ college savings accounts, buy some land on the east side of the Sierras, take the whole family to West Africa to visit friends and colleagues there, buy tickets to the next few World Cups/Women’s World Cups, and give the rest to those in need.

If you were a baseball player, and you came up to bat, what song would be played as your “signature song”?
Something by Bruce Springsteen? I love the Boss, and it seems like it’d fit at a baseball game! I really like the album he did of all the old Pete Seeger songs, so I could imagine a whole stadium drinking beer, basking in the sun, and rocking out to something like “Pay Me My Money Down.” That being said, in my own head, it’d be something more like the soundtrack to the Motorcycle Diaries playing. That music gets you both focused and fired up!

Listen to part of the soundtrack from the Motorcycle Diaries:

Do you have a hidden talent?
I play the violin, which a lot of folks in my day-to-day life don’t know about.

What is your favorite National Geographic photo?
Impossible to choose! In general I love all NG pictures involving deserts. This must be because I’m a child of the desert. I remember loving the photos in issues about the Sahel and the drying of the American Southwest a few years back. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a terrible photographer, so I really appreciate the ability to wordlessly capture the delicate balance of life in water-constrained areas.

What is your favorite National Geographic magazine or news article?
Again, so hard to choose! Perhaps the article and set of aerial shots from the 2005 Africa issue? I also loved the soccer issue before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Soccer’s another one of those things that really unites people around the world.

If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
This is probably cliché, but any dinosaur. How amazing would that be?

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