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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

New name, new emphasis for environmental program

Students traveled to the Galápagos Islands last summer for fieldwork in tropical ecohydrology and environmental chemistry processes with faculty members Diego Riveros-Iregui and Will Vizuete.

Greg Gangi started the UNC Clean Tech Summit five years ago to connect students with clean-tech thought leaders in academia, government and industry. About 400 students attend the two-day, on-campus event each year, with students from 10 universities represented at last spring’s summit.

Greg Gangi

Gangi, who received his doctorate in ecology from Carolina in 1999, joined the faculty in 2000. Today he serves dual roles as teaching associate professor in the environment, ecology and energy program, now E3P, and associate director for education at the Institute for the Environment. He has led students on environmental field studies around the world. Gangi is excited about the growing opportunities to connect students to careers in the clean-tech industry as part of E3P, which launched in July after a lengthy strategic planning process to enhance and expand the preexisting curriculum in environment and ecology.

“There is a huge clean-tech presence in the Research Triangle Park area,” Gangi said. “Students should see RTP as a potential career destination — they no longer have to go to New York, D.C. or California.”

Carolina students are creative and passionate and want to save the world, said Jaye Cable, a marine scientist who chairs the new program, “and we want to help them do that. We are teaching them how to think outside the box through multiple disciplines and to consider different perspectives and find new paths,” she said.

 

Jaye Cable

Student interest in environmental science at both the undergraduate and graduate levels has more than doubled in the past decade, Cable added. In the past, environmental science majors might have wound up at a natural resources department, but today’s students are also working at energy startups and writing for Outside magazine. “They’re going into graduate programs in analytics, biogeochemistry, journalism, public policy and more,” she said.

The new program will focus on interdisciplinary research challenges such as coastal and hazards resilience, natural resources, biodiversity and ecology, and environment and development. It will emphasize experiential education opportunities. Students can currently participate in field sites offered in partnership with the Institute for the Environment in the Triangle, Outer Banks, Morehead City and Highlands in North Carolina, as well as established programs abroad in Thailand and the Galápagos. International field studies have also been conducted in Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Siberia. Closer to home, students have undertaken research in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A new EcoStudio incubator in Venable Hall is providing students, regardless of major, with on-campus experiential learning opportunities. Undergraduate students are paired with faculty and graduate student advisers to work on environmentally focused projects.

Tapping University’s strengths 

E3P will develop stronger alliances with social sciences and humanities departments in the College of Arts & Sciences as well as Carolina’s professional schools. The program already offers dual bachelor’s/master’s degrees with the schools of media and journalism, information and library science and government — and provides a pathway to a master’s in public health.

To understand the importance of social sciences to environmental solutions, think of a topic that sounds as simple as constructing bike lanes, said Noreen McDonald, chair of the department of city and regional planning. There are technological and engineering aspects to consider but adding bike lanes to roadways affects communities — and the issue can be controversial. “We can’t change the future without understanding how best to implement new solutions,” McDonald said. “Social scientists ask questions about what communities want and how they’ve been included in the design and layout of the bike routes.”

Rachel Willis

E3P’s focus fits well with the research and teaching passions of Rachel Willis, a professor of American studies, who is helping port communities worldwide understand the impacts of climate change. Two of her courses are Rising Waters: Strategies for Resilience to the Challenges of Climate and the Built Environment, a new APPLES service-learning course, and  Global Waters: American Impacts and Critical Connections, specifically designed to address cross-discipline issues, ranging from health effects to infrastructure planning. 

“The impact of the environment on people and the planet demands that we include the humanities, especially the visual and performing arts, in communicating the challenges and choices ahead effectively to wider audiences,” Willis said.

An expanded focus on energy

Teaching assistant professor Leda Van Doren, who was recently hired to teach courses in energy, comes from both an academic and an industry background.

Van Doren received a master’s degree environmental engineering and a doctorate in energy from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, and she had a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University. She also worked for the U.S. Department of Energy, where she developed methods for designing sustainable algal biofuels production processes.

She taught a senior capstone course as part of the Chancellor’s Three Zeros Environmental Initiative, where students work on updating the campus greenhouse gas inventory and developing guidelines to reduce emissions.

E3P will also hire five new faculty members to expand interdisciplinary programming in key areas including cities and critical infrastructure; energy and energy analytics; environment, development and economics; inequality and the environment; and water resources and hydrology.

“Energy is interdisciplinary by nature, so it’s a great fit,” Van Doren said. “We are trying to identify all of the collaborations we might explore at UNC.”