October 31, 2001

CALS Expands Research; New Major Created

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With the burden of ever-growing environmental concerns on its mind, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) has decided to expand its environmental initiatives by creating a new major and by pursuing more research.

“Cornell has a lot of strength in environmental areas,” said Susan Henry, the Ronald P. Lynch dean of CALS. “This is important not only for the college but society as well.”

Currently pending is a new interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences major. According to Prof. Susan Riha, earth and atmospheric sciences, the major is awaiting approval by the State Department of Education and the State University of New York. The status of the approval should be known within the next six to nine months, and if approved, the major will be implemented next year.

The major is intended to prepare students for future study and employment in a variety of fields, including the natural sciences, public policy, natural resource management, environmental law, business and medicine. The curriculum for the cross-disciplinary major will include courses focusing on earth systems, biotic systems, economic systems and social systems.

“Reports suggest that the University declare interdisciplinary approaches to the environment as a priority in our research and education,” Henry said.

New CALS research efforts spotlight the impacts of invasive plant species on native agriculture and environment, environmental sustainability, conservation and ecological and evolutionary processes among others.

Bernd Blossey, director of the Biological Control of Non-Indigenous Plant Species Program, is researching the impacts of invasive plants on native plants, amphibians and invertebrates.

“In essence, we look at how native food webs change as a result of ongoing invasions,” Blossey said.

Blossey works with graduate and undergraduate students on different aspects of the problem, such as field research, rearing insects, searching out salamanders and harvesting plants.

“Within the program we work with lots of different animals,” said

Blossey. “So we gain input from different disciplines yet hold a commonality on how invasive plants affect the ecosystem.”

This research is sponsored by a three-year, half-million-dollar grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To promote community outreach, Blossey speaks at various federal parks, management agencies and the Department of Environmental Conservation. He also works with high school students across the country to introduce to them the idea of biological control.

Biological control “is so easy to do,” Blossey said. “It can be done in your backyard.”

The program is also working with the CALS communication department to create a website that will be used as an information exchange between the high schools and Cornell’s research facilities.

Sandwiched among Cornell’s broad environmental interests lies recycling. Prof. Larry Walker, biology and environmental engineering, is conducting research on the development of renewable resources for energy and industrial chemicals.

“Currently, less than ten percent of specialty chemicals, intermediate chemicals and commodities, and less than five percent of the U.S. energy demand, are plant-based,” Walker said.

Research in this area is a collaborative effort between faculty and graduate students in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, the School of Engineering and the Department of Applied Engineering Physics.

Other important areas included the recycling and management of metal resources.

“Novel approaches must be developed to manage and recover metals that have been dispersed throughout the biosphere,” Walker said. “This research involves plant molecular biology and metabolic engineering to create plants that have increased rates of metal uptake.”

Walker also belongs to the Sustainable Agriculturally-Based Bioindustries Cluster (SABBIC), a group of faculty members coordinated by Cornell who for the last 18 months have been discussing ways to use agriculturally-based resources to produce energy, industrial chemicals, novel natural products and waste recycling technology through the application of advanced engineering and industrial development concepts.

“SABBIC activities are inherently multi-disciplinary, as only a

broad-spectrum of biological and physical scientists and engineers can catalyze the development of sustainable bioindustries,” he said.

The committee has recently received a $2.1 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture Multidisciplinary Graduate Education and training Program (USDA MGET). The grant is for research and educating graduate students in bio-based industry.

The new environmental research and major are part of Cornell’s incentives to develop a university-wide program in environmental awareness.

“We need more people in my position to [continue] to work on this topic,” said Blossey. “But this program was created in CALS, and Cornell is a leader in [environmental research].”

Archived article by Rachel Einschlag