Campus News

UB launches Department of Environment and Sustainability

Butterfly tagging.

In an ecological methods course taught by Nicholas Henshue, clinical assistant professor in the new Department of Environment and Sustainability, students placed stickers on the wings of monarch butterflies to help track the species' spectacular migration. These lightweight tags were designed by Monarch Watch program for tagging monarchs and do not interfere with flight or otherwise harm the butterflies when applied correctly, according to the program. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published October 15, 2019

Howard Lasker, chair, Department of Environment and Sustainability.
“We’re living in a time of rapid human population growth, and humans are modifying the environment in myriad ways. Understanding these effects and deciding what level of impact we find acceptable are important goals.”
Howard Lasker, chair
Department of Environment and Sustainability

The Earth is warming. Rising seas are eroding coastlines. Air pollution is rife in many cities. Household chemicals and medicines are finding their way into water and soil. Many animals have gone extinct due to human activity, while many others are endangered.

To address these and other pressing global challenges, the College of Arts and Sciences has launched a Department of Environment and Sustainability.

The new unit brings together faculty from disciplines spanning the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. These experts will conduct research and prepare students to address some of the most important problems facing humanity in the 21st century.

“The environment and sustainability are areas of study that are — and should be — the focus for many students,” says Howard Lasker, chair of the Department of Environment and Sustainability, and a coral reef researcher. “The daily headlines underscore the urgency of these issues. We’re living in a time of rapid human population growth, and humans are modifying the environment in myriad ways. Understanding these effects and deciding what level of impact we find acceptable are important goals.”

The department’s interdisciplinary nature is vital to its success, says Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Researchers in the department possess expertise in fields ranging from geology and ecology to history and media study. Many hold joint appointments in other departments.

“Science is critical in understanding how humans are altering the environment,” Schulze says, “but science alone cannot begin to tell us what to do about the problems we are creating. Any question of how to address a problem is a question of value that demands that we employ expertise from every discipline. Businesses, governments, universities and nonprofits all recognize that meeting the challenge of sustainability will be increasingly central to their success, and no single discipline can provide all the tools and insights they’ll need. This new interdisciplinary department will be a home for innovative teaching and research about one of the pressing issues of our time.”

Angela Martinez Quintana examines a piece of coral with Howard Lasker.

Angela Martinez Quintana (right) is a PhD student in evolution, ecology and behavior, one of the programs housed in the new Department of Environment and Sustainability. She is studying coral reefs in the lab of Howard Lasker (left), chair of the department. Photo: Douglas Levere

New master’s in sustainability leadership

Starting in 2020, the department will offer a master’s degree in sustainability leadership. This program, an MA, will prepare its graduates to lead organizations in adopting sustainable practices and creating plans to minimize environmental impact.

Students pursuing the degree will consider sustainability through multiple lenses, from the perspective of environment and ecology, social sciences and cultural studies, and economics and business. Graduates will have a diverse skill set in business, policy and sustainable development that will equip them to manage sustainability efforts in corporate, governmental and nonprofit organizations.

The degree’s interdisciplinary nature reflects its roots: While it will be fully administered by the new department, the program was developed by a committee that included representatives from the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, School of Architecture and Planning, and School of Management.

In addition to the new MA program, the Department of Environment and Sustainability offers an advanced certificate in sustainability and houses several existing degree programs at UB that previously did not have a departmental home. These include a BA/BS in environmental studies, a BS in environmental geosciences and an MS and PhD in evolution, ecology and behavior. About 250 students are already enrolled in these three programs.

Growing focus on sustainability

The new department — which will grow in coming years through additional faculty hires — underscores the College of Arts and Sciences’ commitment to sustainability.

Researchers in the college have long been engaged in environmental research, education and outreach, investigating topics that range from the history of environmental activism to the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, both on land and at sea.

In addition to the new department, major interdisciplinary efforts in the college include the Strategic Initiative in Sustainable Urban Environments, which engages the Buffalo Niagara region as a living laboratory to create the sustainable city of the future.

“The Strategic Initiative in Sustainable Urban Environments will closely collaborate with the new department on developing new sustainability curriculum, aiding with new faculty hires, and continually supporting its students and faculty,” says Susan Clark, director of the initiative. “For example, the initiative will offer students experiential learning opportunities in sustainability, and facilitate collaborative and interdisciplinary research opportunities for faculty.”