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Professor Deb Swackhamer

Professor Deb Swackhamer is leading efforts to form a system-wide, interdisciplinary Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

Research without borders

The new Institute on the Environment to set new standards for interdisciplinary work and public engagement at the U

By Jim Thorp

From M, winter 2007 (Updated Dec. 8, 2006)

When it comes to the new Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, the biggest obstacle may not be locating funding, researchers, or even physical space. The challenge may be realizing the full scope and bold ambition of the project.

The vision is easy to catch: The most qualified researchers, policy-makers, communicators, and citizens coming together in a living laboratory to bridge the gaps between environmental problems, solutions, implementation, and adoption.

The question is, can it be done?

Uniquely suited Absolutely, says Deb Swackhamer, interim director of the fledgling institute and professor of environmental health sciences: "Without question, this institute will take the U to a whole new level in terms of reaching across disciplines to solve major environmental problems. ... This is a sweeping effort, across the University system, that will foster cooperation and enable us to access new resources and multidisciplinary grant opportunities that wouldn't be achievable without this institute."

"We're not dreaming ... this university is uniquely positioned to make it happen."

David Mulla, a soil, water and climate professor and member of the provost's advisory committee that developed plans for the institute, says the University's land-grant mission helps differentiate this institute from other environmental think tanks.


During the December 2006 Board of Regents meetings, members heard about a variety of interdisciplinary initiatives at the U, including the Institute for Advanced Study, the Institute on the Environment, the Institute for Translational Neuroscience and the Institute for the Advancement of Science and Technology.

Faculty representatives outlined the value of such endeavors to the University's threefold mission of research, education and service to the public:

>> Locally and globally, the biggest problems of our day cross the boundaries between traditional academic disciplines.

>> While world-class disciplinary expertise is necessary for strong interdisciplinary research, complex problems demand well-educated, flexible and collaborative problem-solvers.

>> Initiatives like these will foster the growth and recognition of such problem-solvers among U students and faculty, and will enhance our recruitment and retention efforts.

These institutes hope to attract significant new interdisciplinary grants to the U--grants that would not otherwise be possible without these formal structures.

For details on the initiatives presented to the Regents, download the Interdisciplinary Initiatives Report (PDF 44 KB).

"Our basic mission is to provide solutions to the people of Minnesota--we have more than 150 years of experience doing that," says Mulla. "But we're also an economic engine, graduating young professionals and helping to start new businesses. At the same time, we have a strong reputation for doing research, developing new information, new technologies, and new solutions."

As further evidence of the U's unique position, Swackhamer points to its geographic footprint. "Our state is at a confluence of the Great Lakes, the Great Plains, and great rivers as well," she says. "We are connected to three major drainage basins--the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the Red River--and major biomes, including hardwood forests and prairie."

Environmental issues manifest themselves in different ways across these systems, and the University's statewide network of campuses and research centers are ideally positioned to track such problems. Swackhamer is quick to point out, however, that the scope of the institute is global.

"Most of our state's environmental concerns--such as climate change, sustainable energy, and land-use issues--are also national and global," Swackhamer says. "So while we anticipate engaging local expertise as appropriate, we also envision joining with other institutions around the world."

Room for everyone The proposed structure for the institute includes resident fellows, associate faculty, and external partners working in transdisciplinary teams on specific problems (or aspects of problems) related to specific global environmental themes established by the institute. Swackhamer uses transdisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary to emphasize that these experts will be from many different colleges, let alone departments. Teams or groups of teams will conduct core research, develop solutions, and help to bring those solutions to decision-makers--and ultimately to the consumer, if appropriate.

"If the theme is sustainable energy, consider biofuels research, for example," she says. "We need chemists to work on how cellulose can be broken down to create energy. We need epidemiologists and doctors to investigate public health issues related to exposures during manufacture and use, agronomists to study cropping systems for production of the fuel, and economists and other scientists to look at the costs of production (in terms of dollars, energy used, and environmental impact, such as agricultural run-off) versus the savings from using the fuel. We need engineers to ensure our engines will run on the fuel, a business plan to market and distribute the new fuel, and social scientists and communicators to help us analyze and overcome obstacles to adoption."


The Institute on the Environment is now accepting nominations for 12 founding fellows to develop the newly approved institute.

>> Nominations are due to Interim Director Deborah Swackhamer by Dec. 20.

>> Selections will be announced early January 2007.

Founding fellowships are one-time appointments for the purpose of establishing the institute. Click here for details.

Swackhamer envisions close collaboration with related institutes and centers system-wide--in the case of biofuels research, for example, U partners could include the Center for Transportation Studies, the Natural Resources Research Institute at University of Minnesota Duluth and the proposed National Center for Biofuels Research.

Post-doctorate fellows and graduate students will be directly involved in interdisciplinary research. Undergraduates will have internship opportunities. No degrees will be conferred through the organization, but the institute will serve as a single gateway to environmental knowledge and resources throughout the University.

"The idea is to be small in size, big in scope, and powerful in impact," says Swackhamer. "But we're not dreaming--we can do it. This university is uniquely positioned to make it happen."

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