May 5, 2010

The Scientist: James Lassoie

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Many professors refer to their time at the university as work, and others may refer to it as research, but like a student, Prof. James Lassoie, natural resources, calls his time at Cornell, “school.”

Lassoie arrived at Cornell, starting as an Extension Forester at the Arnot Forest in 1976. Lassoie did extensive research, but felt disconnected from the public.

“I always thought I was going to be a scientist but I didn’t love it – it wasn’t a passion. I had concerns that a lot of our research and especially the stuff I was doing in Ecology and tree physiology were very detached from the needs of people.”

After realizing passion for working with people, Lassoie began to work with international graduate students in forestry.

In 1988, Lassoie became chair of the department of Natural Resources, and held the position until 2002, when he decided to focus on teaching students.

“I was finally doing what I wanted to do all through graduate school,” he said.

Lassoie’s passion for teaching stems from his passion for learning.

“I’m in academia because it’s a learning environment. If I don’t learn something in class, I lose interest in it, just like a student,” he explained. “I never say I’m going to work, I always say I’m going to ‘school,’ because that’s how I think of it and it’s amazing that someone actually pays me to do this.”

Currently, Lassoie works in two areas. First, Lassoie aids graduate students to create their own projects.

“What I commonly do with graduate students, as well as undergraduate students, is work on their ideas, and mentor them to develop their own research rather than taking them and putting them inside my project. I don’t like that.”

According to Lassoie, his second area of work is the “culmination of his career which began as a very simple and very profound idea.”

He developed this idea because he believed that students in classes, like his International Conservation course or his Sustainable Development course, were not satisfied with reading about theory.

According to Lassoie, they wanted to “get their hands dirty” instead.

“I’d love to take a bunch of them each semester and take them to protected areas around the world. But it’s impossible.”

To eliminate the gap between the classroom and field learning, Lassoie created a program called “Bridging Learners with Practitioners: Interdisciplinary Experiential Learning in Conservation Science using Conservation Bridge.” This Internet based program takes small groups of students to places like Bhutan, Kenya, Idaho, Pennsylvania and China, where they work with practitioners to develop case studies of particular interests.

The students document all of the research using multimedia, such as high definition video, maps, text, web links, Wiki and audio files.  Lassoie makes the multimedia available to his students on, a social networking system that facilitates communication and collaboration amongst students, educators and practitioners.

The site bridges the gap between the classroom and the “real world,” according to Lassoie.

Most recently, Lassoie was awarded the USDA High Education Challenge Grant to begin a similar project. The project will develop eight to ten case studies, and will build an “Agriculture Bridge” to deal with sustainable agriculture concerns worldwide.

Lassoie says that one of the biggest problems of environmentalism is that “a dichotomy exists between the growth of business, and protection of the environment. Initiatives to bring them back together will attract even the most staunch business-conservative-Republican that’s out for money. Environmentalists have to adjust more to the needs of the American public.”

This call for compromise comes from Lassoie’s personal belief that no one wants to sacrifice their present condition for the condition of future generations.

“I’ve never met anybody anywhere who would sacrifice their children for their unborn grandchildren,” he said.

Original Author: Maria Minsker