The Fralin Life Science Institute has launched a new center to support research, education, and outreach in the field of global change. Directed by Dr. William (Bill) A. Hopkins, professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation (CNRE), the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech was officially chartered in January 2015.
“Five of the most important threats to natural ecosystems are habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, disease, and climate change”, Hopkins said. “We have incredible expertise at Virginia Tech on each of these problems, but this expertise is scattered around campus in different colleges and departments. The Global Change Center at Virginia Tech will foster interactions among experts in each of these fields so that we can approach global change problems with a more holistic, interdisciplinary perspective. For example, we seek to assemble teams of faculty to understand how these factors interact with one another, one of the next frontiers in global-change science.”
A recent example of a global change issue is the sudden, rapid growth of algae in lakes and reservoirs around the United States. These toxic algal blooms are caused by a series of anthropogenic factors that include climate change, altered land use, and pollution. The subsequent consequences include significant food-web disruptions and drinking water impairment for metropolitan areas. To effectively mitigate such complex environmental problems, research teams comprised of biologists, toxicologists, geochemists, engineers, climate modelers, and social scientists are needed.
Confronting the multifaceted nature of global change requires well-coordinated interdisciplinary teams like these and highly integrated training models for the next generation of scientists. To address the challenges, the Global Change Center will provide a framework at Virginia Tech that encourages and facilitates interdisciplinary research, education, and outreach across campus.
Goals and vision
The center has 7 immediate goals:
- Establish Virginia Tech as an innovative international leader in global-change science, from basic research to development of science-based solutions that can inform policy, and provide visibility of our strengths to the world.
- Build a collaborative and well-integrated interdisciplinary research community including both natural and social scientists and engineers studying how major global threats individually and interactively influence the environment and society.
- Recruit the most innovative faculty and students to Virginia Tech.
- Position Virginia Tech to secure significant extramural funding and to form meaningful partnerships with broad stakeholders including federal agencies, non-government organizations, and industry.
- Make the best available science accessible to environmental policy-makers and the public through effective communication, participation, and dissemination.
- Create novel interdisciplinary research training programs for undergraduate and graduate students seeking to become the next leaders in global change science.
- Serve the Commonwealth by interfacing directly with decision-makers in Richmond and the National Capital Region, and by training the next generation of interdisciplinary scholars to address the most pressing issues associated with global change.
According to Hopkins, “The Center will draw upon VT’s strengths in science, engineering and the social sciences, and capitalize on existing expertise in a wide array of academic units. We have already gained considerable traction towards this vision by unifying the enthusiasm of 37 faculty members across campus. We have also established a successful interdisciplinary graduate education program, Interfaces of Global Change (IGC IGEP), which will be central to the GCC’s educational goals.”
Building on success and looking to the future
The GCC has strong links to its administrative home, the Fralin Life Science Institute, which has committed funding, office space, and administrative support to this endeavor. Continuing support for the IGC IGEP comes from the Virginia Tech Graduate School.
“This is truly a broad endeavor that will benefit the entire campus community, including faculty and students from at least 6 colleges, 15 departments, multiple Institutes, and the National Capital Region. It will also serve as a strong complement to other emerging strengths on our campus including several interdisciplinary graduate programs (IGEPs) and initiatives in Water, Sustainability, and Resiliency,” Hopkins said.
Virginia Tech’s new undergraduate degree in water, approved by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in early December, is one of the most innovative, interdisciplinary offerings in the country and will position graduates for a wide spectrum of careers in private industry, federal and state agencies, and nongovernmental organizations.
“The timing of this new program could not be better, nor more urgent,” said Brian Richter, director of global freshwater strategies for The Nature Conservancy. “Job opportunities will await students upon graduation. Many corporations are now awakening to the water risks in their business operations and supply chains, and they are looking for help.”
The comprehensive bachelor of science degree program — called Water: Resources, Policy, and Management — is the first of its kind at the undergraduate level in the United States. It will blend courses in water science with those in water policy, law, economics, management, and related social sciences. The program addresses an expected 19 percent job growth in positions requiring a comprehensive understanding of water issues.
“Students in this major will be able to cultivate expertise in a field, such as international water management or hydrology, while developing a broad understanding in many areas that can impact water policy and use,” said Stephen Schoenholtz, professor of forest hydrology and soils in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech. “In order to sustainably manage this resource, understanding the human side of water is as important as understanding the science.”
The degree’s academic home will be in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. Four other Virginia Tech colleges — Agriculture and Life Sciences, Architecture and Urban Studies, Engineering, and Science — are partners, reflecting the program’s interdisciplinary nature.
The new degree will be initiated in the 2015 fall semester, building its curriculum from existing classes in 13 departments across campus. In addition, seven new faculty members were hired specifically for their expertise related to water. They will teach existing courses as well as create new ones.
Students in the water major will select one area of focused study from a choice of water science specializations (aquatic ecosystems, hydrology, water quality, or water treatment and public health) and one area of focused study from a choice of water policy specializations (water, climate, energy, and global issues; watershed management; international water management; or water policy, planning, and economics).
Schoenholtz, who will coordinate the program with an advisory committee representing faculty from 10 departments, found strong, widespread support for the new degree program and interest in its future graduates.
“People from government agencies, private industry, international aid groups, and more are all saying they want to hire people who understand both the science and the human dimensions related to water — including policy, communication, and stakeholder issues,” Schoenholtz said.
“It’s exciting to look at the jobs opening up in corporate sustainability, in an array of companies such as MillerCoors, Coca-Cola, North Face, and Estee Lauder. There is a strong outlook for jobs to meet the growing needs for sustainably managing water,” he added.
Richter of The Nature Conservancy explained, “Water programs are expanding within development banks such as the World Bank and within aid organizations such as USAID. The nongovernmental community is building its water ranks as well, to address both the social impacts of water shortages or lack of access to clean water, as well as the environmental damage caused by unsustainable water management practices.”
Students interested in enrolling in the new water degree program are encouraged to seek advising now. Email Kevin McGuire, associate director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, or call 540-231-6017.
Story by Lynn Davis
Laura Schoenle, a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Ignacio Moore‘s lab, recently presented a poster at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) in West Palm Beach, FL.
Laura won the Best Student Poster Award in the Ecoimmunology and Disease Ecology division. Congratulations!
Jacob Barney, Assistant Professor in Plant Physiology, Pathology and Weed Science (PPWS), received the Outstanding Researcher Award at the Northeastern Weed Science Society’s (NWSS) 69th Annual Meeting in Williamsburg, VA on January 5,2015.
Dr. Barney and his collaborators have published 40 peer-reviewed papers in 25 journals that include a wide variety of ecology, weed science, bioenergy, and policy/law research. He has been invited to speak around the world, giving 23 invited presentations, contributing 69 talks at professional meetings, and has served as advisor to various industry and government agencies. To date, his research program has been awarded >$1.6M in grants, including two USDA grants.
Dr. Barney is extremely proud of the students he has mentored. His students have won various awards and grants, including first place undergrad in the Weed Olympics, several top places in the Northeast and Southern Weed Contests, as well as several top places in the NEWSS student paper contest. One of Jacob’s current students, Larissa Smith, received the Robert D. Sweet Outstanding Graduate Student Award at the same NWSS meeting in January.
Barney is very active in NEWSS, WSSA, and several groups at Virginia Tech, including being an Associate Editor for Invasive Plant Science and Management. His current research program includes projects on the evolution of weediness, niche modeling, spatial simulation models, mineland reclamation, invasive plant eradication, and identifying the ecological impact of invaders.