Brian Hornbuckle has an old photo of himself as a boy, talking—mouth wide—while cousin Keri Hornbuckle’s brother rests his chin on his fists, elbows on the table, looking exasperated.
Brian grew up in Shenandoah, in the southwest corner of Iowa, while Keri, a decade his senior, grew up 260 miles away in Cedar Rapids. Because their fathers were close, their families often saw one another at their grandparents’ home, where they’d share a meal, play croquet, and catch up on each other’s lives.
“I was the annoying kid who wanted to hang around my older cousins,” Brian said (Keri describes him as being a “scamp”).
Brian’s admiration for his cousins, and Keri in particular, only grew after she left her home in Cedar Rapids to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry from Grinnell College and, later, a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota, before taking a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering at the State University of New York, Buffalo.
Today, Keri is the Donald E. Bently Professor of Engineering in the University of Iowa Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, where she studies pollutants in the Great Lakes, in urban air, and—more recently—inside schools and other buildings.
Brian, meanwhile, is a professor and director of graduate education for agricultural meteorology in Iowa State University’s Department of Agronomy, where his research is focused on using NASA satellites to measure water in soil and crops. He also teaches courses in environmental physics and mentors undergraduate and graduate students.
[Watch a short clip of the Zoom interview with the Hornbuckle cousins by clicking the video embedded with this story.]
It may not be that unusual when multiple people from the same family pursue similar careers. But listening to Brian and Keri talk during a recent Zoom interview on Zoom recently, it quickly became obvious how much the Iowa cousins admire—and inspire—one another.
“Keri has been a role model for me in a lot of ways,” Brian said. “I remember visiting Keri when she was on the faculty at Buffalo. I was in grad school or teaching at the time, and I got to see what she was doing.
“I also remember staying at their house in Iowa City when I first started as faculty member, and I remember walking with her and asking her questions,” he added. “It’s been great to have her in that position and a little bit older than me.”
Keri was clearly moved by Brian’s comment.
“That’s such a nice thing for Brian to say,” she said. “I’ve been so proud of Brian’s achievements, doing innovative work, combining engineering and agriculture, and doing the kind of environmental science that’s really cutting edge while using the most advanced technology.”
Keri said she also gets a kick out of the many collaborations Brian has with her colleagues in the University of Iowa College of Engineering. “They’re always saying how wonderful my cousin is and what a great collaborator he is, which has been very extraordinary,” she said.
The pair credits their public high school teachers with inspiring them to pursue scientific research, though with different areas of focus.
“I’m just so proud of the state of Iowa that we can support such a great educational system,” Keri said.
“I was very fortunate to have some great math and science teachers when I was in high school, and that was part of the reason I wanted to teach math and physics—I wanted to at least try to return the favor,” Brian said, noting that he taught high school before pursuing a position in higher education. “That made a big impact on me.”
After his junior year of high school, Brian joined a non-profit conservation association that allowed students to work in national parks, making repairs and tackling other tasks related to their operation. He spent a month on Isle Royale on Lake Superior (the largest island on the largest lake in the world), where vehicles are prohibited and access is only possible by boat or seaplane. He spent a month with other volunteers renovating a campsite, an experience that sharpened his interest in the environment.
While his degree was in electrical engineering, Brian also loved the outdoors. During a visit to the University of Michigan to check out its graduate programs someone asked him if he’d heard about remote sensing, used to precisely measure and track environmental factors like rainfall and other aspects of weather and climate.
It was a lightbulb moment; remote sensing offered the perfect blend of technology and environment research, an area he continues to study to this day.
Keri said a high school teacher inspired her to pursue chemistry. But during a summer study abroad in the Netherlands while an undergraduate at Grinnell, she worked with a chemist who used a mass spectrometer (which measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions in chemicals) to study the environment.
“I was shocked to learn what research was really like, that someone didn’t tell you exactly what to do and you could drive your own pursuit of knowledge,” she said.
At the University of Minnesota, she met a famous expert on polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) who studied their impact on the Great Lakes.
“I found my people there,” she said.
Brian said that while much of the focus of his agricultural research is on Iowa, the state is an excellent test bed for ideas and innovations that can be applied elsewhere.
While they may wear their respective school colors for official events, the Hornbuckles are a truly blended extended family.
Keri’s parents got their undergraduate degrees from ISU and their advanced degrees from Iowa (her two sons attend Iowa as well). Her maternal grandfather graduated from ISU in 1928, and in fact most of her mom’s family (hailing from Laurens, Iowa) were Cyclones.
“We wore a lot of cardinal and gold growing up,” she says.
Meanwhile, Brian’s oldest daughter graduated from Iowa in 2020 and that his sister earned her medical degree at Iowa. He adds that he has nearly as many collaborations with UI faculty as he does with his own.
Brian is currently working with Iowa Flood Center Director Witek Krajewski, UI Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Anton Kruger, Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Jun Wang, and Colin Lewis-Beck, a visiting professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science.
They haven’t ruled out some future collaboration between the two of them.
“We’ve talked about it,” Brian said, laughing.
“It just hasn’t happened, but it always seemed like it should,” Keri added. “I’d love to have a Hornbuckle and Hornbuckle paper.”