Colby’s Environmental Studies Department Continues to Grow and Thrive
The College has been a leader in environmental education for 50 years, and its most important work may be yet to come
Molly Gardner ’22 arrived at Colby four years ago uncertain what she wanted to study. The young woman from northern Minnesota was drawn to the Maine woods, which reminded her of home, and it was in those woods that she found her academic calling and personal passion.
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Gardner, who will graduate in May from Colby’s vaunted Environmental Studies Department, focused her academic work on the impact of the environment on human health. She is spending the final weeks of her education at Colby as a leader at the Alfond Youth and Community Center’s Mary Nash Beaupre Greenhouse in Waterville, where she works with local school children on projects aimed at combating food insecurity.
Gardner plans to attend medical school and pursue a master’s in public health. She credits Colby’s Environmental Studies Department with helping her plot a future that promises to be both challenging and meaningful.
“Every professor has a specialty, but they all are really invested in my education, as well as their own studies. I find that really refreshing. Some are traditional scientists and others are social scientists. There’s a huge variety. I’ve really enjoyed that,” Gardner said.
Colby’s hallmark Environmental Studies Department turned 50 during the 2021-22 academic year. After getting its start as one of the nation’s first environmental programs in 1971, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement, it remains a national leader in the field. The department was founded when many of the most important environmental laws were passed—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act—and just one year after the first Earth Day was held.
Today, Colby faculty say the department is still building steam as it offers an array of interdisciplinary courses and subjects for majors. Environmental Studies has grown to become the largest interdisciplinary program and among the fastest-growing academic programs at Colby, with three distinct majors: environmental science, environmental policy, and environmental computation.
This past fall, the department had 157 declared majors. As of December 2021, the department ranked fifth in the number of students majoring in environmental studies, and that number has more than doubled in the last decade, said Philip Nyhus, professor of environmental studies and the department’s associate chair.
“Compared to a lot of our peers, we have a large number of majors and minors. The number of faculty and staff, in addition to all the affiliated faculty and staff, puts us in a pretty good league,” Nyhus said.
Colby has thrived in the area of environmental studies because of a plethora of interdisciplinary courses and programs. From the outset, when Assistant Professor William H. Gilbert III launched the program, the curriculum was designed to emphasize problem-solving and provide students with grounding in the natural and social sciences. More recently, it has expanded into the humanities.
Students take courses from every division, said Gail Carlson, an assistant professor in environmental studies and director of the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, which was established in 2017. They study biology, chemistry, economics, environmental policy, quantitative analysis, and topics in the humanities, including English and philosophy. They take diverse electives related to forest and freshwater ecology, ocean science and conservation, renewable energy, climate, biodiversity conservation, environmental justice, global health and environmental activism, among many others.
“I’m a biochemist. But I teach policymaking. Many classes don’t fit one discipline,” Carlson said. “I think we’ve done a great job expanding, especially in the last decade. We have recent hires in energy systems and energy policy, which is fantastic because the world is going to renewable energy.”
The course Climate Change, Justice, and Health offers a good example of the interdisciplinary nature of individual courses in the department. Carlson requires students to read the novel Salvage the Bones, an account of Hurricane Katrina that helps students understand the impacts of climate change in human terms.
Associate Professor Denise Bruesewitz, the department’s current chair, said the cross-disciplinary approach has distinguished the program from the outset. “Faculty and students who are seeking to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems know that interdisciplinary thinking is so critical to moving toward successful strategies to solving environmental problems—we need to build our understanding to include all the messiness of humans and ecological systems and the ways these two interact, and ES students are primed to do that work,” she said.
Through collaborations with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, the Schoodic Institute, and other organizations, students receive real-world research opportunities. The College’s recent acquisition of Allen and Benner islands in midcoast Maine will position Colby students and faculty to do meaningful research for years to come, she said.
The Buck Lab, which operates in close collaboration with the department and is funded by an endowment from Trustee Sandy Buck ’78 and his wife, Sissy Buck, supports research projects and internships that relate to environmental issues. Dozens of students each year pursue funded experiences, and it is an opportunity available to all Colby students, regardless of major, who are pursuing work related to environmental issues. The goal, Carlson said, is to support the next generation of environmental leaders, whom she calls “tomorrow’s change-makers.”
Recently funded projects included one student studying Asian elephant habitat dynamics in Sri Lanka and Indonesia; another looked at racial justice work by U.S. conservation organizations; and a third studied the perspectives of Maine physicians about how climate change is impacting the health of their patients.
Funding from Anne Clarke Wolff ’87 and Benjamin “Ted” E. Wolff ’86 also supports internships and research experiences, as well as a lecture series. The Wolffs made their donation in honor of F. Russell Cole, Oak Professor of Biological Sciences, Emeritus and longtime champion of the department. Thomas Teitenberg, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics, Emeritus, and the late David H. Firmage, Clara C. Piper Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, helped shape the program over the years.
Today, the department boasts a faculty of high-achieving specialists. Bruesewitz is an expert on aquatic ecology, biogeochemistry, and ecosystem ecology. Assistant Professor Justin Becknell studies forest ecosystems. Assistant Professors Stacy-ann Robinson and Alison Bates specialize in international environmental policy and renewable energy, respectively. Laboratory Instructor Abby Pearson supports environmental science laboratory courses.
The department’s robust lecture series brings to campus experts in a multitude of environmental disciplines to share their experiences in lectures that are free and open to the public. Topics range from environmental activism to global sustainability challenges, food insecurity, indigenous intellectual property rights, and Earth law, an emerging body of law for protecting the planet’s life and life-support systems.
The result of the varied course options and real-world opportunities is that many graduates go on to become experts and environmental leaders.
“These experiences make such a huge difference in their careers and their development. The students literally are launched,” Carlson said. “They go out and do extraordinary things. They go to the top graduate programs in the country. They work for amazing companies. They do great work in the nonprofit sector.”
Cole, who was instrumental in positioning Colby as a national leader in both sustainability and environmental studies, said the program’s strength has always been its students. “The program has been fortunate to attract bright, motivated students who are concerned about contemporary environmental challenges and their possible solutions, and who endeavor to be environmental leaders as citizens and professionals,” he said.
Graduates include Tim Glidden ’74, former president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust; Emmie Theberge ’08, outreach director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine; Brendan Carroll ’05, an assistant professor of public administration at Leiden University, one of Europe’s leading international research universities; Elizabeth Turnbull Henry ’04, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts; and Blair Braverman ’11, author and Iditarod racer in Wisconsin who is a contributing editor at Outside magazine.
Yiyuan “Jasmine” Qin ’12 is another example. After Qin graduated from Colby with a major in environmental science, she earned a master’s in environmental management at Yale University and a master’s of science in engineering and management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Qin became a sustainability specialist and expert in natural resources, community development, disaster resilience, and digital development.
Today she is cofounder of the 2020 startup re+connect that is working on disaster relief in Puerto Rico to help victims of Hurricane Maria. Qin hopes to create a blueprint for how to more efficiently, effectively, and compassionately help other disaster-prone areas in need.
She credits Colby with giving her the confidence, curiosity, and intellectual bandwidth to pursue something utterly different. While at Colby, Qin helped Nyhus with research on the endangered South China tigers that resulted in two published papers.
“It led me to be able to research my startup. It’s how I wrote my thesis at Yale and at MIT. By the time I got to Yale and MIT, writing a thesis was a piece of cake,” said Qin, who grew up in China.
Qin added, one of the greatest lessons she received at Colby was the importance of compassion.
“To become a better society we need to have more compassion for everyone, to understand that everyone is doing their best, and the leader needs to learn to speak their language,” Qin said.
Carlson thinks the department will continue to expand by adding expert faculty in new environmental fields and in topic areas that students are passionate about. And she’s confident Colby will continue to attract students who will shape the environmental research done on campus.
As the department looks ahead, Nyhus said it’s important to be mindful of where it started—at the dawn of the environmental movement five decades ago when our rivers were filthy and the air was polluted. Much has improved, but new problems exist, such as climate change, forever chemicals, and environmental inequality.
He is confident the future experts who will help solve these problems will come from Colby.
“Environmental problems are inherently complex,” Nyhus said. “So we need students who can think critically and are trained as interdisciplinary thinkers, because they’re not solving one problem. We need to continue to attract and educate and encourage future leaders to address these problems for the next 50 years and beyond.”