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The Environmental Scientists

A Team Effort

Rosanna Cappellato
Assistant Professor, Biology
Chair, Environmental Studies/Environmental Sciences 
Program Committee

Environmental ScientistsAlix Matthews ’14, and Biology professors Michael Collins, Rosanna Cappellato and Sarah BoyleEnvironmental Studies and Environmental Sciences are new additions to the Rhodes curriculum. Can you discuss their evolution?

Students really fought for these programs. Lee Bryant ’11 was the first student to major in Environmental Studies. This was before the program had been established, and she designed her own major, combining Environmental Studies and Theatre. Lee’s experience told us two very important things: First, there’s very strong interest in this area; second, the structure already existed within the college to offer an Environmental major.

We also have very dedicated professors. It’s not only the classic science departments, but also those like History, International Studies, Anthropology, Religious Studies and English that are involved. All of these pieces within the college, professors and students with this common interest and commitment, made the creation of the program possible.

How do you see Environmental Studies and Environmental Sciences developing in the future?

I think the students are really interested, and so far the college has been very supportive. Moving forward, I would like to see more faculty join the Environmental Sciences part of the program. At the moment we’re slightly stronger on the Environmental Studies side, and in the future I hope to further expand the Sciences and offer even greater variety in this area.

What kinds of opportunities are available to students who major in Environmental Studies or Environmental Sciences?

There are several professors—including Jennifer Sciubba in International Studies, Tait Keller in History and myself—who all do research with the students. There are also opportunities for credited internships in Memphis with organizations such as the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, Nature Conservancy, Livable Memphis and Bridges USA. I believe this is one of the strengths of the program. By working with local institutions, we can rely on and create ties with the community around us.

What is the most satisfying aspect of teaching at Rhodes?

There’s a very high quality of students here. They aren’t in school just to get a degree. They are here because they are involved, both professionally and personally. There’s interest, engagement and passion on their part. As a mentor you partner with students and establish a dialogue with them, and the students themselves contribute ideas as you work together. You see them growing and learning. The commitment and the seriousness of the students here make working at Rhodes as a professor very special.  

A Liberal Arts Job

Cary Fowler ’71
Executive Director, The Global Crop Diversity Trust
Rome, Italy

Carey Fowler and President William TrouttCary Fowler ’71 and President Bill Troutt, Commencement 2011Please discuss your current work with the Global Crop Diversity Trust. What are your responsibilities as executive director?

The Trust is an international organization housed within the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. We hope to ensure the permanent conservation of the biological foundation of agriculture, a goal I’ve always believed we would achieve by carrying out our work with vision and integrity. As executive director I have overall responsibility for all aspects of the organization.

I am not a laboratory scientist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am engaged in conceptualizing and designing a global system for conserving crop diversity, knitting together hundreds of seed banks around the world. This involves elements of Biology, Genetics, Ecology and these days, even Climate Science. And it requires that I have some understanding of institutions, as well as international and intellectual property law. All of these areas are essential to constructing a global system that is composed both of genes and of countries, institutions and people—and is functional and sustainable.

What attracted you to Rhodes? 

I applied to two colleges and Rhodes was the better of the two! I also valued its size and that it was a liberal arts college. Finally, it was in my hometown and my father and aunt had both graduated from Rhodes, so in a sense I grew up with the college in my consciousness.

Did your major studies prepare you for your career?

I had a bridge major that combined Political Science and Psychology—my way of trying to major in Sociology in the absence of a Sociology Department. I certainly didn’t have a career planned out when I left college, but Rhodes gave me what I needed to succeed professionally: exposure to many academic disciplines, critical analytical skills and the confidence to look beyond artificial disciplinary boundaries. Although my work is situated in the biological sciences, my job requires not just knowledge of agriculture, biology and genetics, but also an understanding of politics and institutions. In other words, it’s a “liberal arts job.”

Rhodes gives students the chance to build a foundation for their careers, as well as for the interests and values that help people lead fulfilling lives. I don’t know of many important problems in the world today that can be addressed competently within a single academic discipline, and this is why I think exposure to and appreciation of multiple disciplines is so important in college. I left Rhodes with a high level of comfort in applying interdisciplinary approaches to my work. For me, this has made all the difference, and it largely explains my professional success.

Charting the Waters

Christopher Wilson ’95
Research Scientist, Hydroscience & Engineering
The University of Iowa

Please discuss your research at the University of Iowa. 

I am a research scientist in IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa, one of the nation’s oldest and premier environmental hydraulics research laboratories. I am part of a larger team working on many studies related to the movement of water, sediment and attached nutrients through watersheds. One of my current projects includes examining the temporal and spatial variability of sediment movement using stable and radioisotopic tracers through agricultural watersheds. We are looking at how erosion and deposition of soils and sediments vary in different places and at different times. By identifying where the sediment is coming from and when it is moving, we will better be able to target our remedial actions, thereby helping both the farmers and the communities downstream.

What led you to this line of work?

I graduated from Rhodes with a B.S. in Biology, focusing along the Ecology track, but I also minored in Earth Systems Science and English. It was at Rhodes where my love of water fully developed. Growing up in Cleveland, OH, we had the dubious distinction of having our river catch on fire. Our burning river was what led to Earth Day, and this—coupled with many a long weekend enjoying the Mississippi River at Rhodes—fueled my passion for water and started me on my career path.

Where do you see the field of Environmental Science moving?

These days the sciences are becoming more interdisciplinary, and projects tend to have a bigger scope. Additionally, studies must address the broader impacts of their research, including how to be transformative to multiple areas. Universities are finally catching up with this thought by developing clusters of faculty and researchers around specific topics rather than departments. For example, here at Iowa we have a cluster on water sustainability.

How has your experience at Rhodes contributed to your career?

With Environmental Studies, I feel it is very important to grasp the “big picture.” Many of the driving forces behind environmental issues, like degrading soil and water quality, result from a series of interactions and feedbacks between different properties and processes. To help develop this big picture, scientists must have a breadth of knowledge.

A key characteristic of a liberal arts education is the range of the course load. Students are exposed to courses from both the sciences and humanities under the assumption that common links can be drawn between the different disciplines. Knowledge, regardless of the topic, can offer unique perspectives on addressing problems and identifying trends. My time at Rhodes, where I focused in Ecology, Earth Systems Science and English, rounded me as a researcher and a person. I can draw from these experiences to help address key questions in my teaching and research.

Thinking Outside the Box

Alix Matthews ’14

Why did you choose to attend Rhodes?

Ever since I was a baby, I’d visited Memphis on the weekends with my mom. Once I became acquainted with the city, I fell in love with it. When I came to Rhodes for the first time, it was the variety of trees that initially caught my eye—which makes sense now that I know the college is a registered arboretum. I had also heard that the Rhodes science departments were superior, so that’s what really sold me. 

Can you describe a typical semester?

Environmental Sciences is an interdisciplinary major, so I’m able to take interesting classes in departments that I would not normally be involved in, like History, Art and English. I usually sign up for one or two science classes and the rest humanities, to keep things balanced. I also try to take a “random” course that is unrelated to anything else I’m studying, so I will always be learning something new.

What was your study abroad experience in Namibia like? Has it complemented your learning at Rhodes?

The Namibia Maymester has motivated me to study a greater variety of environmental issues. Environmental Science is more than “going green;” it’s social, political, economic, natural and, in some cases, religious. The trip to Namibia opened my eyes to a whole new realm of the environment in which we as humans live. Many great problems lie in the clash between the environment and the economy, and it’s difficult to find the middle ground where environmental sustainability meets economic sensibility. Eventually, this is where I want my studies to go–Environmental Economics.

Which of your faculty mentors have been most influential to you?

In Biology, Professor Michael Collins challenges me within the classroom and beyond it, and he encourages me to think outside the box, both in terms of course work and life choices. Dr. Cappellato has taught me what it means to be passionate. She pushes me to think critically about what I learn and to ask the tough questions.

Do you think your major is equipping you well for future pursuits?

Eventually, I would like to go to graduate school and get a doctorate in some “–ology” related to my interests in the natural sciences. I’m not sure which, because I feel there’s still so much left for me to learn! Regardless, I know my major is preparing me well for whatever I choose to accomplish after graduation. Every day I’m reminded of how incredibly relative the things I’m learning in the classroom are to the world outside of Rhodes.