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Collaboration is key to success for environmental sciences

By Fariss Samarrai

Founded in 1969 through a merging of the old departments of geology and geography, the Department of Environmental Sciences grew from an emerging awareness of environmental problems in the 1960s. Named by its first chair, Robert Dolan, a coastal geologist who still is on the faculty, the department was a leader in its field, offering the first graduate degree-granting program in the nation in the interdisciplinary study of the environmental sciences. The faculty has grown from 15 original members to 44, including research and teaching professors. They teach 70 to 90 courses per year in ecology, hydrology, atmospheric sciences and geosciences. Last year the department awarded 63 undergraduate and 10 graduate degrees. A few years ago, an external review committee ranked Environmental Sciences “among the top four or five” nationally.

Clark Hall, the home of the department, will soon include a new four-story wing scheduled for completion in July. Bruce P. Hayden, the new chair of the department, and associate chair David E. Smith talked recently about the interdisciplinary emphasis of the department and how it serves as an example for the future.

Q: What is unique about this department?

Hayden: This department was the first of its kind in the nation. We are interdisciplinary, bringing together people who look at the details as well as the big-picture environmental questions and issues of the day. We grew from an awareness that the scientific disciplines, such as biology and chemistry, need to be integrated for collaborative research when dealing with the environment. As an interdisciplinary department, we are unique nationally, and unique at this university. We really are the model for interdisciplinary research and education. Four of the people who helped found this department, Bob Dolan (a coastal geologist), George Hornberger (a hydrologist), Alan Howard (a geologist), and myself (a climatologist), are still with the department.

Q: What do researchers and m need to know in order to work together across disciplines?

Hayden: There are many ways big issues can be tackled by bringing people together in collaborations. It’s a matter of learning to understand each other’s language. This is done by immersion, proximity. We have to recognize that every discipline has different methods, approaches and procedures for the establishment of knowledge. Some disciplines are experimental, some technical, others largely observational. Interdisciplinary scholarship requires that you have trust in your colleagues.

Smith: In our department we have people who work in the lab, and people who work in the field. We have to take the time to understand how each group works. This creates challenges.s

Hayden: It’s a bilateral relationship; faculties and schools exist because of relationships between people. The fuel is the intellectual capital of people participating, and this exists as long as mutual common interests prevail.

Q: What are the challenges for making this happen?

Hayden: The University is trying to make interdisciplinary teaching and research flourish, and it is happening. But this is done more easily in research than in teaching. It’s easier to write a joint funding proposal that crosses disciplinary lines than to teach a course like this. There’s a huge amount of work involved in creating a new course, and it can be more difficult to put in a variety of new views in a course.

Smith: A core of knowledge is needed to move into interdisciplinary courses, and this can be difficult to design. It’s much easier to create groups to address interdisciplinary research.
Hayden: In this department we have a complex research and teaching enterprise because we have disciplines that stand apart as disciplines, but out of necessity, because we’re dealing with global systems, these disciplines must also be integrated.

Smith: It’s always a question of depth or breadth. We try to do both, with a combination of lab and field studies.

Q: Later this year you will move into your new space. Tell us about how New Clark Hall compares to the old building, which is being renovated.

Smith: We’ve lived in the old building since the late 1970s. Originally Clark Hall was the Law School, and therefore it wasn’t designed to accommodate scientific labs. We’ve been improvising and making do ever since. Our labs were cobbled together from what had once been moot courtrooms. We need a building that allows flexibility for the kind of work we do, which, because of its interdisciplinary nature, requires automation and interaction between investigators. For the first time we will have a building designed for research labs, both wet labs and computer modeling labs.

Hayden: We will have more space for research groups to work together, for one-on-one interaction, such as mentoring, and for interdisciplinary advising teams. This building will foster and facilitate the collective interdisciplinary processes of this department.

Smith: We really custom-designed this building with a great deal of faculty input. We brought people together to talk about it, how we wanted to do it. We know from experience that it’s hard to work together when people are separated by floors, so we created common spaces, in particular common research spaces, so people can interact. We raised a large pot of money for the building as a department and we were determined to have it built the way we wanted it.

Hayden: We’ve learned a lot in the process about how people work best together and how space can facilitate or hinder interaction. Some of what we’ve learned may be of help to the rest of the University as other buildings are planned.

Smith: You have to have the right people involved in these kinds of discussions. It doesn’t happen naturally. You have to have the commitment of people who are involved in teaching and research. The whole endeavor works because of a culture of committed people. It’s not only physical structure, but that’s important too.

Hayden: This took years of planning, with every faculty member involved, often at deep levels. We’ve found ways to couple the two buildings, so work can be pursued seamlessly between them.

Smith: We also will have more security for the research labs, as well as more office space when the old building is renovated.

Q: You also are getting a new building on the Eastern Shore, at the NSF-funded Long-Term Ecological Research Project. Tell us about that.

Smith: Construction of the new structure begins this summer. We’re building a state-of-the-art laboratory building and two accommodations for faculty and students and visitors. This will be an environment where people will want to go and spend time. Up to this point we’ve been renting a farmhouse, which is too insufficient for our needs. Researchers currently have to stabilize their samples on the Eastern Shore and then bring them back to the University for analyses. This is not only inefficient, it also discourages some investigations. With the new lab facilities on site, people will be able to conduct their research there and stay as long as they need.

Hayden: People will be able to spend the whole summer conducting research there if they want. We’ll be able to house 40 people comfortably. People are very enthused and excited about this. We also are building the facilities next to the water at the town harbor, allowing easy access to our research vessels. We also may increase the number of smaller vessels for research in the marshes.

Smith: We also have outreach programs with the local schools on the Eastern Shore. We are providing courses for credit to local science teachers, and we provide instruction and equipment to the schools. We’ve even brought high school students into our research allowing them to conduct field observations. So even on the Eastern Shore we are engaged in research, education and public service.

Hayden: NSF provides a great deal of support for the kind of long-term focus activities that we do, and they also are funding more programs for universities to interact with K-12 schools. We are deeply involved with these kinds of projects — they should continue to be an important focus for years to come.

Q: Do you still have time to teach? How important is it, as an administrator, to maintain a connection to the students?

Hayden: Yes, I still have time to teach but I have learned that building a new course while chairman is not a task to take on lightly.

Smith: I love interacting with students, and I love the field, where I can do research and work with students. I try to balance that with my administrative work.

Q: What kind of careers do environmental science graduates move into?

Hayden: About a third go on to graduate school. About a third take environmental sciences-related jobs most often with consulting firms or government; and the rest, like lots of college students, find jobs with no direct connection to their major.

Currently, we have 78 graduate students and 172 undergraduate majors and 15 minors. Ninety-six are expected to graduate in May.

David Smith
Photos by Andrew Shurtleff
David Smith in one of the new labs in the Clark Hall addition.

David E. Smith (right) is a biological oceanographer with a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. He is interested in marine ecology and invertebrate zoology. “In this department we do science, we are not environmentalists,” he said. “Our job is to study the environment, come up with solid findings and understandings, and to communicate what we learn. This work often is useful to policymakers who might otherwise receive conflicting advice from various self-interest groups.”

Smith continues his teaching and research, even as he handles administrative and fund-raising responsibilities.

“I like interacting with students,” he said, “and I like getting out to the field. My administrative work provides a balance. I also like trying to create an environment where the faculty is successful.”

Bruce Hayden (below) specializes in studying coastal storm climate, climate change and biogeography. He has also served as the Virginia state climatologist. He has a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s in botany, both from Penn State. He earned his Ph.D. in biometeorology in 1968 from the University of Chicago. He joined U.Va. in 1970 and became chair of the Department of Environmental sSciences last year. He also serves as director of the Long-Term Ecological Research project on the Eastern Shore.

Bruce Hayden
Bruce Hayden stands outside of the Clark Hall addition, scheduled for completion in July.

“My job as chair is to ensure that my colleagues have the maximum opportunity to do their work. I try to be as little of an administrator as possible and work on maintaining the relationships that keep this interdisciplinary department working. I also understand the large issues, and can use that knowledge to make this an efficient organization.”

Hayden said he loves his work because it allows him to be a perpetual student, and to change the definition of his job as needed.


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