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Campus News

Environmental Science Major Grows in Popularity

by Greta Petry

Judith Kricheff
Judith Kricheff

Environmental science is a growing major for undergraduates at the University at Albany.

This faculty-initiated interdisciplinary major in the College of Arts & Sciences started formally in Fall 2002 as the result of collaboration from faculty across a wide range of disciplines.

“We have long known of the strong desire of students to have an ‘environmental’ major here that was necessarily broader than many of the existing bachelor of science degrees,” said Vincent Idone, associate professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Idone oversees the program. “These existing degrees were narrowly focused, as appropriate to the particular discipline. Hence, the environmental science degree was expected to fill a niche that had long been lacking on this campus. The interest to date seems to clearly confirm this. We anticipated maybe 10 to 15 declared majors by now. At last count, there were more than 40!”

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Joan Wick-Pelletier said, “One of the stated goals of the College’s Strategic Plan is to encourage interdisciplinary initiatives at the undergraduate level. The program in environmental science is an excellent model of such an initiative.”

A student must select one of four concentrations within the major: atmospheric science, earth science, biology, or geography. The major culminates in a bachelor of science degree, which qualifies graduates for a wide range of careers in environmental science.

“We feel that the present implementation of the major provides students good flexibility, excellent breadth, and solid foundational rigor to prepare them for many potential positions within the overall field. Graduate study in this area (or related disciplines) is also anticipated as a likely option within this degree,” Idone said.

Judith Kricheff of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a senior planning to graduate in December 2004, said, “I chose this major because it involves different areas of mathematics and science, including calculus, biology, and physics in addition to a specific concentration. This way I can stay in earth science and obtain the geology minor, which is my favorite, at the same time.”

Kricheff said she feels she is getting a more well-rounded education as an environmental science major. “This has been a very good experience overall. The professors from the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences are great and my classes have been very interesting. My favorite class so far is Environmental Geochemistry with Dr. [John] Delano.”

Michael DeMatteo of Schenectady, N.Y., a senior, chose environmental science as his major because he always liked earth sciences in school. “I started off in atmospheric science but then decided that meteorology wasn’t for me,” DeMatteo said. “I hope to go to law school next year and possibly get into environmental law. If that falls through though, a career in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) would be the next best thing for me.”

UAlbany has a long history of student interest in an environmental studies major. Such a program existed in the early and mid-’70s through the Division of Social Science. In about 1977, however, that program fell victim to funding cuts and changing priorities.

Today’s undergraduate program, by contrast, is based in the sciences, and is on solid footing. “With persistence and modest additional resources, we hope to grow this program in size and quality while we maintain the excellence of our other programs,” Idone said.

The current environmental science major was started by a small group of interested faculty. With stable staffing provided by a core of tenured faculty, the program is less vulnerable to funding uncertainties.

“All the chairs are very supportive and senior faculty are involved,” said Associate Professor of Biological Sciences George Robinson, who was among the start-up group. “I think the program is here to stay.”

Robinson noted, “This is a unique program. The Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences is taking the lead; that makes it particularly interesting. As the environmental sciences continue to mature, really important research areas now focus on the land-water and land-atmosphere interfaces, and many of the exchanges across these interfaces are through living beings. It is vital to have scientists who understand atmospheric dynamics and geochemistry, and equally important to have people who understand the contributions of living systems.”

Associate Professor of Biology Thomas Caraco said the heart of the program is in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences with some interest from the Department of Geography and Planning and Biological Sciences playing an ancillary role.

“We recognized there was great interest in environmental science among applicants at universities all over the Northeast. We realized it would be wise to provide this as a service to our applicants. I give all the credit to Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, particularly Vince Idone, for the work required to implement the program,” said Caraco, who teaches courses in ecology and biogeography. He said, “Our role as ecologists from biology is simply to assist with those students who also have an interest in the life sciences.”

Those who developed the environmental science major over a period of several years included, in addition to Idone: Brad Linsley, John Arnason, John Delano, and Karen Mohr from the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; as well as Caraco, Robinson, and Gary Kleppel of the Biodiversity, Conservation, and Policy Master’s Program in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Andrei Lapenis and Ray Bromley of the Department of Geography and Planning. “Lapenis, Arnason, and Delano have made particular contributions relative to course development for the new major,” Idone said.

Professor of Biological Sciences Kleppel, who has taught courses in experimental ecology, noted that many of the environmental science courses taught are in the area of biodiversity. He said, “It [environmental science] is an important program. There are some very good students in the program and they are a joy to have in class.”

Kleppel noted that with UAlbany’s proximity to the Hudson River and the Adirondack Park, “our campus is becoming a center of environmental and ecological science. The potential of UAlbany to play a leading role in the adaptation of modern technologies and interdisciplinary approaches to classical ecological and environmental research is exciting and important.”