U.S. Department of Energy

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Jansson Honored by Colorado State University

“You Can’t Go Home Again,” the title of a 1940 novel by Thomas Wolfe, makes a pronouncement about the past most people follow.

But not Janet Jansson. On Sept. 21, the veteran scientist and Laboratory Fellow went back to Colorado State University, one of her formative intellectual homes.

“It’s where I focused on soil microbiology,” she said, and where she received her master’s degree in 1983. The Colorado State course of study was the first deliberate step in a career that has taken Jansson around the world.

Those early studies also delivered to Jansson a measure of renown, especially for her molecular (omics) approaches to research on the complex microbial communities that reside in soil and the human gut.

Alumni Honors

The occasion for the trip back to Colorado State was an Honored Alumni Awardfrom the university’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. She was one of one of three recipients this year.

“I was so honored,” said Jansson, who is also PNNL’s prolifically published Chief Scientist for Biology. “It floored me, when you think of how many people graduated from there.” 

The visit came with feelings and memories, too.

“The emotional part for me is to think how my career has evolved over these decades,” she said. “I would never have anticipated all the things I have done.”

The research journey that started at Colorado State led to a Ph.D. in microbial ecology (Michigan State University, 1988), a 20-year research career at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (1988-2007), a posting at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (2007-2014), teaching duties at the University of California, Berkeley and at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark (2012-2014), and a fruitful career at PNNL that started in 2014.

The author of more than 170 publications, Jansson is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and the Washington State Academy of Science. She serves on the Executive Board of the International Society for Microbiology (ISME) and on numerous national and international advisory panels,

A Fateful Lecture

As an undergraduate at New Mexico State University, Jansson started as a chemical engineering major, though without much enthusiasm. Her vision of the future back then? “I wanted to live on a farm,” she said. 

Jansson turned increasingly to biology for her electives, and one day attended a chance lecture on soil microbiology. She graduated in 1980 with a B.S. in biology and soil science.

Jansson arrived at graduate school in Colorado during an era still affected by the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), when interest in environmental pollution “was a real hot topic,” she said.

What aroused her immediate curiosity was how microbes could be harnessed to degrade pollution.

At Colorado State, Jansson’s fervor went into finding a way to sap the toxicity of 4-chlorophenol (4-CP), a legacy industrial compound with suspected developmental and reproductive effects.

‘Then You Find Your Niche’

Jansson eventually isolated a bacteria that could degrade 4-CP in treated phenolic wastewaters. Arthrobacter chlorophenolicus A6 washer first discovery as a scientist (and it came with naming rights). 

Arthrobacter was one of the organisms sequenced at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute, has been the subject of many papers, and even today is used in experiments, including at PNNL. 

Before leaving Colorado State, Jansson sealed a sample of the bacteria in a small tube she has taken it with her on every research stop in her career. (Regarding transport, she said, “Bacteria are easy.”)

Jansson’s two-year sojourn at Colorado State marked another turning point: studies that pointed her to the Ph.D. she had not originally set out to get. 

“I was just interested in the science,” said Jansson. “You never know what kind of forces are going to shape your trajectory. For a lot of young people, you start university and don’t really know—then you find your niche.” 

September 2018
| Pacific Northwest National Laboratory