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April 23, 2001

Campus workshop focuses on interdisciplinary research in environmental sciences

By Tim Stephens

UCSC has a long history of fostering research that crosses the boundaries of traditional disciplines. Now an effort is under way to coordinate the development of interdisciplinary research in the environmental sciences, building on the campus's existing strengths to address major challenges in environmental research.

This month, the Office of Research convened a campuswide workshop on "Developing Partnerships in Interdisciplinary Research in the Environmental Sciences." Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood, the deans of natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering, and more than 50 faculty from a wide range of disciplines attended the workshop, along with representatives of foundations, industry, and funding agencies.

While there are many examples of collaborative environmental research projects on campus, there are compelling reasons to undertake such efforts on an even larger scale, said John Thompson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"The environmental sciences have reached the point where the questions we're asking are so far beyond what any individual investigator or lab group can do that the real future of these sciences is in collaborations and consortiums of groups working together," said Thompson, who chaired a task force that issued a report in January on the environmental sciences at UCSC.

"UCSC already does more interdisciplinary work than most other universities, but we'd like to scale up our efforts to address even larger questions in environmental sciences, and to pursue projects that require a greater level of coordination both within the campus and with outside groups," he said.

Interim vice chancellor for research Burney Le Boeuf, who convened the workshop, said UCSC has an opportunity to become one of the top universities in the nation in the development of integrated research and training approaches within the environmental sciences. Growth of the environmental sciences on the campus coincides with major new initiatives at federal agencies and private foundations to scale up interdisciplinary research and training, he said.

"The challenge is to identify the best problems in the environmental sciences for us to focus on--ones that build on the campus's strengths and that the funding agencies will finance," Le Boeuf said.

Thompson's task force--which included faculty from the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering--evaluated research and training in the environmental sciences at UCSC in relation to national priorities. The group identified two interconnected themes that the campus is well positioned to address and that were among the highest priorities set forth in three national reports on environmental research issued last year:

"Integrating Biodiversity from Genes to Ecosystems" includes efforts to understand the diversity of life at every scale. The objective is to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the factors that generate, maintain, and diminish biodiversity, its organization, and its effects on ecosystem function.

"Global-scale and Regional-scale Environmental Processes" emphasizes the study of processes spanning major physical and biological transition zones, including land-sea interfaces, urban and natural landscapes, coastal and inland habitats, and nearshore and deep-sea environments.

"We are hoping to develop over time a group of major new interdisciplinary projects under these two broad themes," Thompson said.

The workshop included several presentations from faculty who are involved in interdisciplinary research projects. Le Boeuf noted that many of those attending the workshop heard colleagues from other disciplines describe their work for the first time.

"People are already talking about new possibilities for collaboration as a result of the workshop. But that's the easy part, and the harder part is to take it to the next level and develop proposals," he said. "The workshop is the first step in that process."

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