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The Good Earth

May 27, 2008


By Stacy Tillilie


The population of Texas is expected to double in the next 50 years, posing added strain on the supply of already stressed water resources. Emerging contaminants in drinking water--pharmaceuticals and personal care products among them-- are also of acute concern, as is water run-off from Lake Waco, upon which Central Texans depend for their water supply. Consider all this along with the issues of human impact on air quality and climate change, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and resulting CO2 emissions, and many believe that we are on the precipice of a critical mass that will alter the course of the Earth's future.

Environmental woes such as these are being echoed not only in Texas, but all across the country and around the globe, especially in developing countries. What used to be casual coffee talk about climate change and the quantity and quality of water resources is now leading to grassroots efforts aimed at pinpointing problems, asking questions, analyzing issues and proposing solutions.

Among those on the cutting edge of the scientific investigation are the professors, researchers and students at Baylor University, supported by new initiatives that answer an urgent call to environmental stewardship with a collective, interdisciplinary response.

From the Ground Up

Last year, the Board of Regents approved a number of proposals that were generated earlier by many departments and vetted through the University Strategic Planning Committee and then through the Executive Council of the President's office. That ruling ultimately resulted in university funding for several major proposals in environmental and ecology-related topics:

  1. the creation of the interdisciplinary Institute for Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or TIE3S, and along with that, a new doctoral program in Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences;
  2. the expansion of the Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research, or CRASR;
  3. the establishment of a research initiative in terrestrial

    paleoclimatology; and

  4. the development of the interdisciplinary Baylor Environmental Health Sciences program.

The University has committed about $11 million to these initiatives over the next 10 years, and faculty and students continue to garner grants and contracts from prestigious organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the "gold standard" of science organizations. This money will help launch the programs; further funding will be needed to help them grow. Officials hope to raise an endowment that will support a research chair, professorships, scholarships, graduate fellowships and assistantships, and at least one seminar series.

Of course, funding never comes easy, but what helped these proposals earn considerable attention and acceptance were their "collaborative synergies," says Dr. Lee Nordt, professor of geology and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "These proposals were accepted because they were building from similar successful research areas by faculty with flourishing national reputations in water quality and ecology," he says.

These new programs are also in high-profile niche areas, putting Baylor on the national--and even international--map, says Nordt. "Our faculty are on the cutting edge," he says, "and they're building research opportunities with [not only graduate students but] undergraduate students." Such a reputation for innovative research will help attract the best students, researchers and additional faculty members to the Baylor campus.

These initiatives also uphold the twin pillars of Baylor 2012: to be a top-tier institution nationally and to serve the Christian mission as it applies to environmental research by helping people and caring for the environment, says Nordt. "We want to influence the national conversation by being a respected leader in the sciences while not having lost sight of our Christian mission," he says, adding that many students will also transfer their knowledge to developing countries via mission trips.

Earth, Wind and Fire

As the world changes, so do the scientific dialogue and the scientists needed to fulfill new interdisciplinary roles. That's where the Institute for Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, known as TIE3S, comes in. As the acronym suggests, TIE3S brings together faculty, researchers and students from various disciplines--including biology, geology, environmental science, chemistry and biochemistry--to share knowledge and forge new paths in research and teaching.

While the concept is not new, the timing is finally ripe for integrating science with social conversations, and Baylor is among the first to launch such an endeavor of this magnitude, says Joseph White, TIE3S director and associate professor of biology.

"The environmental conversation has now evolved into the larger picture of the Earth system," says Dr. White. "This type of thinking requires students to be ecologically competent with an understanding of science." TIE3S will meet that need by producing "a new type of professional who understands the inherent relationship between the physical and living world," he adds.

While groundbreaking, TIE3S is also a natural progression for a university that already touted some of the top minds in these niche sciences. "Baylor is not a large university, but it has a well-positioned faculty who cover a lot of bases," says White. "The faculty are always listening to each other; doors are always open for conversation. Boundaries are transparent here."

A new facility will support the institute. The $1.3 million, 5,400-square-foot Carlile Geology Research Building being constructed adjacent to the Baylor Sciences Building, houses a lab classroom, research labs and storage space (see sidebar page 29).

The new doctoral program in Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences welcomed its first students this year. Considering the national and international need for cross-disciplined professionals, the future is bright for these graduates, expected to fill positions in academia as well as government and private research organizations.

The program also makes good on the pledge of environmental stewardship. "Part of the calling of environmental stewardship is committing to an environmental ethic," says White. "The promise of being good stewards of the environment is a blank check unless we do something about it."

Water World

Interdisciplinary thinking and practices are not only happening within the Baylor campus but through cross-pollination and collaboration with other universities, research organizations and government bodies. The Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research, or CRASR, has served as a role model in outreach through its partnership with the City of Waco. For years, Baylor and the City of Waco have worked together to study aquatic resources and apply solutions to current and anticipated problems. And now, thanks to additional funding from the University, CRASR will be better equipped with the resources--lab space and top graduate students among them--that it needs to perform even better research.

"CRASR creates a structure that makes bridging departmental divides easier," says Dr. Robert Doyle, BS '81, MS '85, chair and director of CRASR. "[This funding] is fundamental in providing resources that scientists need to do good science. With limited tools, we did good work, and now with more resources, we'll do even better work."

That good science includes the study of water availability and how it affects population growth and quality of life, as well as water quality issues concerning waste water, water-borne diseases and other water pollutants and their impact on the environment and human health. Pioneering projects such as Baylor Experimental Aquatic Research (BEAR), artificial stream systems at the Lake Waco Wetlands (funded mostly by the Environmental Protection Agency), offer faculty and students the opportunity to conduct research necessary to provide the City of Waco's applied managers with critical information to make sound decisions for water management.

"This is not a 9-to-5 job; we just like what we do," says Doyle, adding that he and his colleagues can often be found at the Lake Waco project even on Sundays after church.

Graduate and undergraduate students are also immersed in the research. CRASR provides an environment where students can be curious, says Doyle. "Although CRASR is relatively new, recent graduates have left to pursue great post-doctoral opportunities, research positions in industry or government (e.g., the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers) and even tenure-track faculty positions at major universities."

Nonetheless, "at the end of the day, this is all about people: good scientists doing good work that helps solve problems," says Doyle. "At Baylor, people matter. We make sure we don't lose focus of the people behind the [success] metrics."

Unearthing Clues About Climate

Terrestrial paleoclimatology, studies of the geologic record of climate change, is a fast-growing niche science--and one for which Baylor is setting the benchmark. Five core faculty members with unparalleled expertise in terrestrial records have helped put Baylor on the international map as a prominent center of study, which will now benefit from additional faculty members and graduate students, along with lab space and tools.

"Climate is now at the forefront of the current [Bush] administration, which is admitting change," says Dr. Steven Driese, chair and professor of geology, explaining that the policy shift came as a result of substantive evidence from the international scientific community that the climate is currently warming. "It's a timely issue, and timing is everything."

Still, climate change continues to be hotly debated. "The real disagreement is whether climate change is directly caused by humans burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases, or whether it is part of a natural climate cycle," says Driese, "But controversy is the nature of science. Scientists can look at the same data and come to different conclusions."

With the eyes of the scientific world upon it, Baylor is blazing trails in the lab and field--everywhere from Big Bend, the Petrified National Forest and the Appalachians to Costa Rica, Africa and Kazakhstan--to help make predictions about the Earth's future. The success of the program has led to grants from the National Science Foundation, as well as opportunities for faculty to chair symposia sponsored by the Geological Society of America.

Prospects are also tremendous for graduates, whose options range from academia to jobs in the petroleum industry, now offering six-figure salaries to start for those with PhDs.

From Science to Service

An interdisciplinary approach to science is also at the root of the Baylor Environmental Health Sciences program, which will eventually offer students M.S. and B.S. degrees (pending approval) for the burgeoning fields of environmental science and occupational health and safety. Leveraging Baylor's strengths and building bridges among the sciences throughout campus maximizes opportunities for students, says Dr. Bryan Brooks, acting director of the Environmental Health Sciences program and associate professor of environmental science and biomedical studies.

"Environmental issues are complex, with social, economic and political considerations," says Brooks. "Developing an interdisciplinary approach has to be the currency for [scientists] to be able to define and solve environmental problems. ... The problems are too big for an individual investigator to fully understand."

Baylor is a collegial university, where conversations are often the catalysts to grassroots engagement, says Brooks. "The pursuit of new knowledge is at the nexus of faculty interactions in the interdisciplinary sciences," he says.

All of these new programs and research initiatives provide students with the advanced interdisciplinary training so highly sought in today's sciences. And what students do with that experience will be a galvanizing force propelling Baylor to the forefront of the country's top-tier universities--and to the vanguard of global environmental stewardship through excellent science.

"Environmental issues have local relevance and global impact," says Brooks. "We need not look just close to home."

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