Department of Environmental Science

Professor Halina Brown talks about the flexibility of the environmental science major.

Environmental science can involve biology, geography, policy. Can you describe your department's focus?

Brown: The idea is to offer something that is not just biology, not just geology, not just the role of technology or environmental mediation, but to integrate all of these things so they enhance each other. Students who join our major start with a core curriculum of three courses from the major's three tracks: environmental science and policy, earth systems science, and environmental and conservation biology. So from the beginning, whichever track they choose, students meet faculty and students who are interested in the other two tracks.

Do environmental science faculty come from multiple departments?

Brown: Yes. Environmental biology is administered within the biology department. Earth Systems Sciences is administered within the Geography department. Environmental Science and Policy is administered within the IDCE department. But for this major, all of us come together to create something that's more than the sum of its parts.

Do you have to commit to a track early on?

Brown: Because there are so many common science classes that students in all three tracks are required to take, students have enough background to switch tracks, even in their junior year.

Would you give me some examples of research environmental science undergrads have done?

Brown: My area is environmental science and policy so those are the examples I can best speak to. One of my students was accepted for the summer to go on the Polaris Project within Karen Frey, a professor in geography who is part of the earth systems science major. She will go to Siberia and collect data in the Tundra which is slowly increasing its temperature. If we didn't have this environmental science major, this professor from geography might say, "Let me find a geography student to come with me." But a geography student wouldn't bring the breadth of questions that an environmental science major has. So this is a terrific research opportunity for the professor and the student to learn from each other.

Another one of my students did her senior work as an intern with an environmental consulting firm. She was working on cleaning up deep ground water that had been contaminated with chemicals. The method was very experimental, using a highly powerful oxidizing agent. It's a clinical method of trying to inject a chemical deep into the underground bedrock, where the contaminated water is. She was able to do this sophisticated scientific method because she had all of this background in science as an environmental science major. She knew biology, hydrology, chemistry and physics. The question she was trying to address was whether this an appropriate and cost effective method for cleaning up damaged resource. She came back to me concluding that it wasn't. She said, "We're spending a lot of money on it because it's driven by regulations to do it in a particular way, but from the scientific perspective this is not justified. We should not clean it up. We should allow the water to stay there and over the years nature will clean it up." So here, from an environmental science student, comes a completely different way of looking at a scientific project.

Do you have any advice for undergrads who are considering the environmental science major?

Brown: Many students now are interested in environmental fields, but really to be successful in this field in the future, one needs to know quite a lot of science. Environmental Science majors are really positioning themselves to make a difference, to be real contenders in the future. What I want to tell students in environmental science is to become great scientists, but before they leave Clark to get involved in some policy questions. They can just get involved in sustainable campus or other environmental campus initiatives — but remember to put the power of science in the context of society.