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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carolina hires new IE director, launches program for environment studies

At the Piehler Lab, Michael Piehler and his students study how activities on land connect to ecosystems in the water.

As the new director of the Institute for the Environment effective July 1, Michael Piehler draws on his lifetime of experiences as an observer, researcher, teacher and convener to lead an environmental convergence at Carolina to new heights.

“From the air that we breathe, to the water that is vital for life, environmental impacts affect us all,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson. “In our strategic planning for the future, we knew environmental research, education and engagement are areas of strength at Carolina and will play a critical role in the health of our state, our country and the world that we live in. By convening cross-cutting, interdisciplinary research across our centers, institutes, schools and colleges, we will serve as a leader in understanding environmental conditions and factors that influence them. We are excited Michael Piehler will bring his creativity and collaborative spirit to lead the Institute for the Environment with a renewed charge to spotlight and enhance Carolina’s groundbreaking work tackling the world’s most complex and pressing environmental issues.”

Over the last several years, Carolina has commissioned two pan-campus task forces to re-imagine the role of environ-mental studies, research and programs, which have led to changes like the creation of the Environment, Ecology and Energy program (E3P) in the College of Arts & Sciences, launched in July.  

“We’ve had lots of strategic planning, now it is time for strategic action,” Piehler said. “There is a real opportunity to make big, broad, collective progress representing the environment at Carolina as a whole. This is not about the Institute for the Environment alone—the goal is to fully engage the diverse pool of environmental experts at Carolina.”

Michael Piehler

‘Collective whole’

Piehler plans to broaden the research enterprise of the institute to strengthen collaborations and create new opportunities with partners across campus, including former interim director David B. Peden. Key units in addition to E3P are the School of Medicine and the Environmental Science and Engineering program in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Piehler also plans to enhance engagement with other regional partners in industry, policy and academia in the Research Triangle and beyond.

“While it is obvious we have environmental excellence at Carolina, we haven’t conveyed the breadth and depth. We are doing extraordinary work that is regarded as environmental. What we’ll be doing is shining a light on the collective whole of everything that is inside the front door so that internally, we can collaborate, and externally, people can appreciate all of the things that Carolina has to offer for the environment,” Piehler said.

Piehler is intimately familiar with the environmental academic ecosystem at Carolina having earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees here as well as holding positions starting with research assistant professor to full professor with joint affiliations in the college and at Gillings. Piehler most recently served in leadership roles as interim executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute and director of graduate studies and admissions in the curriculum in environment and ecology.

“It is possible to have a career at one institution, as I have so far, and I’ve been fortunate that that happened,” Piehler said.

After earning his bachelor’s degree at Carolina, Piehler worked a year for an environmental consultant then came back to Chapel Hill to pursue a master’s degree in the Gillings environmental science and engineering program. After that, he received funding that would lead to his dissertation on ways to remediate oil spills without introducing unintended environmental impacts.

Tangible problems 

While working with Hans Paerl, Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the Institute for Marine Sciences, Piehler narrowed his focus to nitrogen cycling, a biological or physical process important for producing energy in a living organism or breaking down organic matter into simpler forms.

Once Piehler completed his doctorate, he and Paerl received a five-year grant to construct a wetland at Open Grounds Farm in Beaufort.

“That was the first time that I had direct involvement in a large-scale ecosystemrestoration project and it definitely became a significant theme in my career. It cemented my interest in doing that kind of work;
tackling tangible problems in significantly impaired ecosystems.”

In 2005, Piehler was promoted from research assistant professor jointly with the Institute for Marine Sciences and the Coastal Studies Institute to a tenure-track position with the Institute for Marine Sciences.

Over the years, he has built the Piehler Lab, employing undergraduate and graduate students who research how activities on land connect to ecosystems in the water. Their work quantifying the value of oyster reefs enhancing water quality through the process of denitrification has opened collaborations with the social sciences, like economics.

Piehler’s involvement with the Institute for the Environment began early in his career, when he taught a capstone course as part of the Morehead City Field Site. Over the years, he was able to teach several capstone courses and credits the experience as one of the most rewarding of his time at Carolina.

“It is a privilege to work with absolutely superior graduate students and undergraduate students at Carolina. A lot of the new ideas and much of the difficult work that goes into making exciting science happen are directly attributable to the great students that I’ve had throughout my time here. The highlight of my career is not a single event, but collectively the experience of working with these excellent students,” he said.