Emory Report

October 18, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 8


Gunderson heads new environmental studies department

The hardwood floors of the 1715 North Decatur Building have not yet lost the clean scent of a house recently remodeled. But the building's fresh look and smell represent more than just refurbishment; they also stand for creation, as in the newly formed Department of Environmental Studies (ENVS).

Lance Gunderson is in on the ground floor of this department, both literally and figuratively. The soft-spoken ENVS chair, just arrived in January from the University of Florida, occupies a neatly furnished office with windows looking out on the law and business schools, two units of the University to which he intends to reach out as he helps build a new direction for Emory.

"It's an incredible opportunity to do something unique," Gunderson said. "In my last four or five years at Florida, a lot of my work was in trying to build bridges and integrate various disciplinary approaches to dealing with issues of the environment. Ecologists have one perspective, bird biologists have another perspective, hydrologists have another and sociologists and economists have others on how to understand and try to deal with these complicated issues and systems."

For the last three years, Gunderson has served as executive director of the Resilience Network, an international program that brings ecologists together with scholars from social sciences such as economics, sociology, mathematics, political science and others. The idea is integrate theories or identify existing theories that tie the seemingly divergent disciplines together, and it is a model for what Gunderson hopes to accomplish in environmental studies at Emory.

But before he can do that, Gunderson first needs to build the personnel with which to do it. Though ENVS has absorbed the faculty previously assigned to the geosciences and human and natural ecology programs, Gunderson hopes to hire two new faculty members who order strongly grounded in research in order to establish research programs.

There is also the matter of a curriculum and course of study; currently there is no "environmental studies" degree available, but if the curriculum committee of the Board of Trustees approves what ENVS recently submitted, students in the fall of 2000 will be able choose either a bachelor's of science or of arts in environmental studies--or minor in it, if they wish.

Finally there is the question of teaching and research space. The house on North Decatur has no classrooms, and ENVS is slated to move into Phase II of the Science2000 project, still a couple years away.

Clearly there is much to accomplish for this newest of Emory departments, but Gunderson looks forward to the challenge. He's operated on "nine-to-10-year cycles, not quite like locusts," he quipped, spending 10 years with the U.S. National Park Service at Everglades National Park before accepting the research faculty position in Gainesville.

Gunderson's background is in wetlands ecology management, an interest he developed while growing up in south Florida. He remembers reading magazine articles about the famous ecologists of the 1960s while he was in high school, and how the first images of a water planet "crystallized" a desire to study wetlands.

"The Apollo missions were coming back from trips to the moon, and you could see this incredible stuff, earth rises and such," he said. "It was just amazing, just this little boat floating around in space. I thought, 'We better make sure we keep this place healthy.'"

Gunderson did his part by heading to UF, where he studied with famous ecologist H.T. Odum, then on to the Everglades before returning to work on his PhD under C.S. Holling. Emory has a ways to go before it becomes as "academically green" as the University of Florida, but the ENVS department is a start, and Gunderson said he's talked to several students who are eager for the new major to be offered.

Last spring's debate over the University Apartments parking deck and shuttle road along the edge of Lullwater, even though it didn't turn out how the Committee on the Environment (chaired by ENVS Professor Bill Size, formerly of geosciences) hoped, it demonstrated to Gunderson how the University is grappling with environmental issues.

"For better or for worse, I think the system worked," he said. "There were many good, honest disagreements about what impact it was going to have. All of this boom in building on campus has raised questions like, 'What about the environment? What about those nice green spaces that everyone treasures and are so much a part of the Emory experience? How do we not lose those as we go through this growth spurt?' I think those issues are out on the table, and they're being looked at and debated, and they're producing a lot of constructive ideas."

Some of those ideas no doubt will come from Gunderson. "We wanted someone who was strong and credible in the area of science but who also concentrated on the human question," said college Dean Steve Sanderson, himself a scholar in environmental politics and one of the key figures behind the creation of the ENVS department. "Of the people who were strong in both of those areas, Lance was the best."

-Michael Terrazas

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