Collaboration is key to success
for environmental sciences
By Fariss Samarrai
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.
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.
What is unique about this department?
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.
What do researchers and m need to know in order to work together
There are many ways big issues can be tackled by bringing people
together in collaborations. Its a matter of learning to
understand each others 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.
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
Its 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.
What are the challenges for making this happen?
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. Its easier to write
a joint funding proposal that crosses disciplinary lines than
to teach a course like this. Theres 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.
A core of knowledge is needed to move into interdisciplinary courses,
and this can be difficult to design. Its 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 were dealing with global systems,
these disciplines must also be integrated.
Its always a question of depth or breadth. We try to do
both, with a combination of lab and field studies.
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.
Weve lived in the old building since the late 1970s. Originally
Clark Hall was the Law School, and therefore it wasnt designed
to accommodate scientific labs. Weve 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
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.
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 its 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.
Weve learned a lot in the process about how people work
best together and how space can facilitate or hinder interaction.
Some of what weve learned may be of help to the rest of
the University as other buildings are planned.
You have to have the right people involved in these kinds of discussions.
It doesnt 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. Its
not only physical structure, but thats important too.
This took years of planning, with every faculty member involved,
often at deep levels. Weve found ways to couple the two
buildings, so work can be pursued seamlessly between them.
We also will have more security for the research labs, as well
as more office space when the old building is renovated.
You also are getting a new building on the Eastern Shore, at the
NSF-funded Long-Term Ecological Research Project. Tell us about
Construction of the new structure begins this summer. Were
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
weve 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.
People will be able to spend the whole summer conducting research
there if they want. Well 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.
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. Weve
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.
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.
Do you still have time to teach? How important is it, as an administrator,
to maintain a connection to the students?
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.
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.
What kind of careers do environmental science graduates move into?
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.
we have 78 graduate students and 172 undergraduate majors and
15 minors. Ninety-six are expected to graduate in May.
by Andrew Shurtleff
Smith in one of the new labs in the Clark Hall addition.
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.
continues his teaching and research, even as he handles administrative
and fund-raising responsibilities.
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
Hayden (below) specializes in studying coastal storm climate,
climate change and biogeography. He has also served as the Virginia
state climatologist. He has a bachelors degree in zoology
and a masters 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.
Hayden stands outside of the Clark Hall addition, scheduled
for completion in July.
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
said he loves his work because it allows him to be a perpetual
student, and to change the definition of his job as needed.