Viniece Jennings

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Portrait of Viniece Jennings

Viniece Jennings. | Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Meet Viniece Jennings, a Research Scientist with the Southern Research Station’s Integrating Human and Natural Systems Research Unit in Athens, Georgia. Her research helps people understand the connections between green spaces and physical, mental, and social health. “Natural sciences and public health can be complex fields, but we are continuing to uncover areas of common ground to promote their partnership,” she says. Particularly in urban areas, which are home to 80 percent of the nation's population, green spaces provide people with a critical link to nature and associated health benefits. Jennings has found that these health benefits are often not equally available to everyone. She was the senior author of an article on the availability of urban green spaces and their health implications for obesity, cardiovascular health, heat-related illness, and psychological wellness across different communities. The article is now cited as an example of nationally relevant research that can influence decision making and practices related to parks, recreation, and conservation (PDF; 1.74 MB). “The role of green spaces in the social aspects of public health are often overlooked,” Jennings says, and her work aims to change that.

Jennings teaching a group of kids

Jennings organized a field trip for students from Union Point STEAM Academy (Union Point, Georgia). The field trip was part of the U.S. Forest Service ‘Kids in the Woods’ program, which provides cost-share funding to enhance programs that connect children to the outdoors. | Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

What do you do for the Southern Research Station?

“I am a research scientist who investigates the relationship between green spaces and different aspects of health and well-being. Green spaces include areas such as urban forests, parks, and gardens.”

When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?

“I began working with SRS when I was a graduate student at Florida A&M University. However, I was initially recruited by the Forest Service out of high school as a recipient of a USDA 1890 Scholarship.”

Viniece Jennings’ scientist card

Check out Jennings’ scientist card, part of a series from the Natural Inquirer!

What led you to pursue this field of study?

“I developed an interest in the natural environment when I was in elementary school. I remember learning about the importance of the Amazon Rain Forest and the pressure that it faced from humans. Consequently, I wanted to preserve and value the natural resources that play a role in our existence. When I was in high school, my community was heavily involved in concerns related to environmental injustice in which pollution sources are targeted to minority or low-income areas. As a result, I wanted my academic endeavors to merge both of these interests.”

What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?

“On a typical workday, I’m in the office reviewing recent scientific literature, writing manuscripts, and analyzing secondary data. As I collaborate with colleagues, I can also be on calls related to current and prospective research projects.”

Jennings standing in front of a poster

Jennings presents highlights from her work on youth engagement and outdoor recreation at a professional conference. | Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?

“In 2015, a colleague and I wrote a research article on how the benefits from nature can be unequally distributed in minority and low-income communities. This predicament can also relate to differences in health. The article was the first to present a collective stance on this topic, especially in the United States. It was recently recognized among top research between 2012-2015 in a document published by the National Recreation and Park Association. I’ve also had some exciting speaking opportunities and other recognitions tied to my work on green space and public health. It’s great to see how new academic conversations are developing as a result of my research.”

What do you enjoy most about your work?

“Creatively ‘connecting the dots’ to enhance how we perceive the relationship between urban green spaces and health. I also enjoy publishing articles that encourage different disciplines to communicate in new ways.”

Viniece Jennings

Jennings conducts research on heirs’ property in South Carolina. | Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?

“Indeed, however, with any challenge also lies an opportunity.”

What women have inspired you?

“So many women are an inspiration to me. Through the years, I’ve been fortunate to have female teachers, colleagues, mentors, and family members who guided me along the way. Although I cannot list all of them, here are some that come to mind:

“My grandmother, mom, and sister: they are adventurous, supportive, and always reinforce the importance of believing in myself. My grandmother is a ‘go-getter’ who taught me to get divine instruction and do my part to achieve my goals. My mom never allows me to underestimate myself. From an early age, my sister showed me that women can serve in leadership roles and be a catalyst of influence.

“When I was in high school, I interviewed an aunt for a class assignment. As I learn about someone in my family who went to college and travelled the world, especially during her generation, I was really inspired to do the same. She was also a gracious person who valued family.

“Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama: they have mastered the art of ‘owning your voice’ and showing up as the authentic person. I also appreciate how they are sincere, assertive, and genuinely engaged in uplifting others.

“Valorie Burton and Valerie Jarrett: they are articulate, dedicated, gracious, and demonstrate the power of a great mentor.

“Beyoncé: she is not only an amazing artist/entertainer but she is a phenomenal business woman. I appreciate how she blends her talent with fresh ideas, courage, and strategic planning to be a person of excellence. She is still in her 30s, but her hard work and resilience have built a major brand. I regularly look at her documentary Life is But a Dream – it covers her process to greatness and the importance of listening to your life. I like how she gets advice but she also doesn’t allow people to dismiss her because of her age.

“Since I’m one of the few people in my family to attend graduate school and the first to receive a doctorate, through the years women who’ve made careers in science such as Lisa P. Jackson, Dr. Priscilla Oliver, and Dr. Stephanie Miles-Richardson showed me that it can be done. Most recently, the phenomenal women in the movie Hidden Figures demonstrate how intellect, character, and courage can pave new territory in STEM fields [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] and life in general. Their story and the actresses who portrayed their work inspire me to press forward.”

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

“Stay hardworking and curious. Some of my best ideas have come from a place of instinct, so be willing to be your best advocate. Participate in internships or other opportunities to explore your professional interests. Stay in the literature so that you can keep abreast of the latest findings and develop your craft. Find and develop relationships with mentors who value who you are and what you do. Gauge the people who can be mentors and those who are close advisors – there’s a difference. Finally, attend conferences and other professional meetings to expand your network and learn about other work that is taking place.”

Jennings teaching kids outside

Jennings engages Union Point STEAM Academy students during the ‘Kids in the Woods’ field trip. | Photo by U.S. Forest Service.