#NICAT25: Early Struggles and Interdisciplinary Environment Bonded Students and Faculty to Create a Foundation for Great Things

By Kati Moore, MEM ’16

BY 1989, environmental concerns had grabbed worldwide attention. The global population surpassed 5 billion, and the United Nations had just formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Environmental disasters such as Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez oil spill dominated the headlines over the previous decade. The time was right for Duke to reposition itself as a leader in addressing these challenges.

That fall, Provost Phillip Griffiths charged a faculty committee to determine Duke’s role as an environmental leader using the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies as a starting point. After months of deliberation, the committee recommended that Duke create a new school of environmental science and policy on the base of the School of Forestry. They called for a school that focused on “educational and research programs in terrestrial ecosystems, marine ecosystems, the earth sciences and human environmental interactions.”

Two Duke units, the School of Forestry and the Duke University Marine Lab on Pivers Island in Beaufort, N.C., both established in 1938, would be the heart of the new school: an ambitious experiment using an interdisciplinary approach to address environmental challenges.

Norm Christensen in research plot in Duke Forest

“Both the Marine Laboratory and the School of Forestry were, compared to many units, relatively interdisciplinary,” says Norman L. Christensen, chair of the 1989 committee and, at that time, professor of botany. “But the school of the environment had to become really interdisciplinary. That had to be the central focus, not for its own sake, but because that was what solving environmental problems demanded.”

After a nationwide search, Christensen became the first dean of the new School of the Environment, which was officially established in 1991 (and renamed the Nicholas School after a gift from Peter and Ginny Nicholas in 1995). “I was very invested. The opportunity to start up this enterprise was just so exciting,” Christensen says.

The school’s leaders continued to work to cross boundaries between different fields of study. In 1997, the Geology Department joined the school as the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

Even before this, however, “there was a recognition that it was important to have strong linkages to that unit,” says Randy Kramer, professor of environmental economics and deputy director of the Duke Global Health Institute, who was a member of the original school faculty.

Randall (Randy) Kramer, professor Nicholas School of the Environment in Duke Forest

One of the factors that eventually helped glue together the three units forming the school was the creation of master’s concentrations overseen by faculty in each division. For instance, faculty from the Marine Lab developed the Coastal Environmental Management concentration, and faculty from Earth and Ocean Sciences created the Energy and Environment concentration.

What it was Like

By 1992, the school’s new home base, the Levine Science Research Center, was under construction. But in the meantime its Duke campus offices, classrooms and labs occupied the two lower levels of the BioSciences building on Science Drive.

Built in 1962, the BioSciences basement and subbasement may not have seemed the most auspicious starting place for the incipient school. But its tile walls and linoleum floors (like “the largest men’s lavatory I’d ever seen,” says Christensen) housed a small, but tight-knit, group of scholars and researchers.

There were less than 50 students in the new program, and only 12 faculty members.

Activities that bonded them extended beyond the classroom and field trips to include student-organized and spontaneous social gatherings. Katie Hetts MEM/MF ’94 recalls Friday afternoons at the loading docks behind the building where students gathered with a keg and a fire in a barrel to ward off the winter cold. “We’d stand out there in our overalls and boots, and waylay the faculty as they came out of the building.”

Katie Hetts | Forest Service

Hetts helped lead the school’s chapter of the Society of American Foresters (SAF), which hosted a Field Day event every year—a tradition that still continues yearly at Couch Farm in Duke Forest. From the beginning the event kicked off with a night spent roasting a whole hog that would then feed participants who joined in cross-cut saw and caber toss competitions the next day.

Rikki Grober-Dunsmore MEM ’92 (photo at top) remembers renting beach houses on the Outer Banks with other students for the weekend, and cheering on the men’s basketball team as Duke won both the 1991 and 1992 NCAA National Championship.

The faculty had their own social gatherings, meeting for potluck dinners and Christmas parties. The school would provide a main dish such as a turkey or ham and everyone would bring a dish to share—forestry professor Bill Stambaugh’s wife always brought fruit tarts, says Lynn Maguire, professor of the practice of environmental decision analysis.

Lynn McGuire, Nicolas School of the Environment faculty, in Environment Hall

The school’s sense of community was forged not only by celebrations and social events, but also by loss. In 1992, the graduating class lost three of its members within months of graduation. Kerrie Kuzmier and Pavlik Nikitine were in a plane crash on their way to Costa Rica to work on sustainable development and ecotourism. That same year, their colleague Steve Lee lost his fight with leukemia.

“It was heart wrenching, and it also brought us together,” says Grober-Dunsmore. Students, faculty, and staff banded together in support of each other to create an endowment fund in memory of the three graduates. The Kuzmier-Lee- Nikitine fund still provides scholarships to Nicholas School students, and members of the ’92 graduating class continue to meet to select recipients and remember the colleagues they lost.

The other classes of the early 90’s stay in touch as well, both socially and professionally. They are all part of an extensive network of Nicholas School alumni.

“There’s this incredible professional network that I’m in touch with, but also know I can access because of the camaraderie of graduates from the school,” says Karen Young MEM’93. “There’s this amazing network that will always be there for you as an alum.”

Karen Young

This network extends even to recent graduates. Karen Kirchof, assistant dean of the Career and Professional Development Center, maintains relationships with the ’92 and ’93 graduates and facilitates connections between alumni and current students, helping secure jobs and internships for tomorrow’s environmental leaders.

Many of today’s environmental leaders are products of the Nicholas School’s early years. “I never cease to be impressed with the number of former students I run into at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the Forest Service, the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy,” says Christensen.

You’ll find those early Nicholas School graduates doing great things in a wide range of environmental fields, from corporate sustainability and environmental regulation to wildlife conservation and fire management. (Read how Jane Bacchieri MEM’94 and Henry Stevens MEM’92 have developed green infrastructure as part of watershed management in Portland, Oregon, read story)

A Strong Foundation

Although her focus has shifted to land conservation, Young’s years studying ecotoxicology and environmental chemistry at the Nicholas School laid a strong foundation for her career. Coordinator at Mt. Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative in Maine, she works with 10 partner organizations across the state.

Her career has taken a path from environmental monitoring, risk assessment, and permitting to conservation work using broader management and policy tools. “The toxicology and other scientific knowledge and skills I gained at Duke have been a really important foundation for all my work through my career.”

Judith Ikle | Department of Energy, San Francisco, CA

Judith Iklé MEM ’92 also studied ecotoxicology and environmental chemistry, though her career has taken a different path. She is the procurement strategy program manager at the Energy Division of the California Public Utilities Commission. Over the past 25 years—including five during which she worked in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—she has worked on the nexus of the environment, energy sector and economic regulatory policy; the implementation of a landmark climate law; and programs supporting a 33 percent Renewable Portfolio Standard, electric reliability integrating distributed resources, and electrification of transportation. “Duke provided me with a valuable education, and I have been working in the climate change policy and energy sector ever since, using the policy and analysis skills.”

During Katie Hetts’ time at Duke, she earned degrees in both forestry and forest ecology—the first student to pursue the Master of Environmental Management/Master of Forestry dual degree. She is now a fire management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. During her career she has studied forest diversity in Nepal, been a fuels specialist and fire analyst, and even fought forest fires via helicopters. Last spring she returned to the Nicholas School to teach a session on fire ecology and fire behavior to students in a fire management class taught by Dan Richter.

For Grober-Dunsmore, the grounding she received in resource ecology—and the interdisciplinary interactions with fellow students—proved instrumental in shaping her career in marine conservation and policy.

“Somehow we all gelled. Our student projects really valued and appreciated the diverse perspectives and angles that we all came to the table with. And I think that was phenomenally strong,” says Grober-Dunsmore, program director at the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

Interdisciplinary by Nature

The interdisciplinary nature of classes at the school was also a major plus for Young. “One of the awesome things about being at the school was the ability to learn about so many different aspects of environmental management and science,” she says. “It was nice to be exposed to such a broad range of different ways to work in the environment.”

The Nicholas School’s approach to environmental problem-solving has made impacts in the careers of not only its professional graduates but its faculty as well.

Maguire, for example, began primarily by teaching decision analysis and population ecology. Over time the interdisciplinary emphasis of the school allowed her to branch out and expand her focus to include participatory management, conflict resolution and community-based environmental management, topics on which she is now widely cited.

Richard Di Giulio, professor of environmental toxicology, who studies how pollution affects aquatic ecosystems, came straight to the Nicholas School after receiving his PhD at Virginia Tech. He found that having colleagues who studied water quality and aquatic ecology from different perspectives helped him broaden his research focus.

Richard Di Guiulio poses for a portrait in his lab.

“There is no doubt that being close to social scientists and policy experts has benefited me, by helping me think more broadly about how my research can relate to other issues,” he says. “I think having this vibrant Marine Lab also is a huge bonus to the school.”

One of the biggest changes over the years has been the increased focus on social science at the school, Di Giulio and others say.

“There’s definitely been a growth in the social sciences over time,” says Kramer. “When I came here, there were three social scientists. Now we have quite a few more than that. That’s certainly made me more interdisciplinary in my outlook and the way I organize research projects. It’s also made me fond of teaching students with a diverse set of backgrounds.”

Faculty demographics have broadened as well. When Maguire first came to the school in 1982, she was the only female faculty member on the Durham campus, “and I continued to be the only female faculty member for maybe 12 or 15 years,” she says. Now the school’s core faculty includes more than 20 women, though this number is still less than a third of the total core faculty. Still, Maguire says, “It is very refreshing to have so many female colleagues now.”

In 2006, the Nicholas School hired the first female director of the marine lab, Cindy Van Dover.

Building Bridges

Even as gains were made in increasing the school’s size, interdisciplinarity, and diversity, bringing all the parts together into a cohesive unit wasn’t without challenges.

“Whatever people may say, nobody really likes change all that much, but it’s understandable,” says Christensen. “You’re used to thinking about things a certain way, and having to reframe or rethink it is really challenging.”

Both the Forestry School and Marine Lab had been fixtures at Duke since 1938, but existed on fairly separate planes for the 53 years leading up to the creation of the Nicholas School.

Bridging the physical and cultural gap between these units was particularly difficult, says Dan Rittschof, professor of marine science and conservation who joined the Marine Lab as a research associate in 1982. “The existing faculty had to change its perspective from basically being a field station and a service institution to a functional, multidisciplinary unit of the school.”

Dr. Dan Rittschf in his office at the Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, NC

The completion of Interstate 40 between Raleigh and the coast in 1990 helped bridge the physical divide between the two units. But more important were the people who got others to work together across boundaries.

The late Ken Knoerr, who was professor emeritus of environmental meteorology and hydrology, was particularly instrumental in building bridges between the Forestry School and Marine Lab, and later, the Earth and Ocean Sciences Division.

“Each of the three units had its own culture, but he was willing to cross boundaries,” says Rittschof.

Knoerr joined the Duke faculty in 1961 as assistant professor of forest climatology, and later served as director of graduate studies for Environmental Sciences and Policy from 1995 to 2007.

Christensen as well as the three subsequent deans have also made great efforts to increase the collaboration between disciplines at the Nicholas School. Even seemingly small acts like Dean Alan Townsend’s Weekly Update, which is emailed to all students, faculty and staff, help build community, Christensen says. “These kinds of things are not things you do and then on you go—they’re really high maintenance items that people have to attend to constantly.”

Ultimately, it’s about building relationships, both between and within divisions. “Trust is key,” says Rittschof. “Trust is really hard cross-culturally, but once it’s there the whole world opens up. That’s where I see the school. I see the school on the edge of being able to do some really dramatic things. And I think it’s probably worth the last quarter of a century of struggling.”

Kati Moore MEM’16 is a Duke Environment blogger and writes regularly for the Nicholas School’s communications team.