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April 8, 2002

Major gift from alumnus Gordon Ringold will support new environmental research institute

By Tim Stephens

UCSC has established a new environmental research institute, building on the campus's strong tradition of interdisciplinary research in the environmental sciences. To help launch the new institute, alumnus Gordon Ringold and his wife Tanya Zarucki have provided a gift of $500,000--the largest outright gift the campus has ever received from an alumnus.

Alumnus Gordon Ringold, right, and his wife donated $500,000 to help launch the new STEPS environmental institute. With Ringold are John Thompson, who will serve as the initial director, and Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood. Photos: Above, Louise Donahue, below, NASA
The STEPS Institute for Innovation in Environmental Research is designed to encourage an interdisciplinary approach that integrates science, technology, engineering, policy, and society (the "STEPS" approach) in studying and solving environmental issues.

The overall goal of the institute is to foster research linking global and regional environmental processes, a major scientific challenge that has been identified as a top priority by several national environmental task forces over the past two years.

"Human health depends on ecosystem health, and ecosystem health depends on the processes linking the Earth's ecosystems. The long-term health of our societies therefore requires that we understand these linkages much better than we do now," said John Thompson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Initially, the STEPS Institute will focus on biodiversity and water issues, said Thompson, who led an 18-month campuswide planning process that resulted in the formation of the institute.

Thompson will serve as the initial director, and Brent Haddad, associate professor of environmental studies, will be associate director. The institute, overseen by the Office of Research, will link environmental research efforts campuswide, tapping expertise in a wide range of departments in the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering.

"The STEPS Institute is one that I feel really builds on the tremendous diversity and strength in the environmental sciences that UCSC has already established," said Ringold, the chairman and CEO of SurroMed, a start-up company developing pharmaceutical and biomedical technologies. Ringold earned a B.A. in biology from UCSC and a Ph.D. in microbiology from UC San Francisco.

Processes that occur on a global scale, such as global warming and El Niño events, have direct effects on regional environments and are increasingly affecting human societies, Thompson said. Fragmentation and genetic restructuring of ecosystems are also occurring on a global scale, as people alter the Earth's landscapes and move genes and species across continents and oceans. Invasive species introduced from other parts of the world during the past 100 years now dominate many ecosystems on all continents. These rapid changes are profoundly altering environmental processes and reshaping global patterns of biodiversity and global water cycles.

The STEPS Institute will seek to integrate research that addresses global biodiversity on multiple levels, from genetics to ecosystems.

"We have to link ecology, evolution, and genetics together so that we can understand how organisms evolve in response to changing environmental conditions and the introduction of new species," Thompson said. "Ecosystems are highly coevolved assemblages of species, and we've been introducing new species with different genetic structures, while we really don't have a clue what that means for ecosystem health in the long term."

The institute's other major research theme will integrate research linking water, environment, and society, said Haddad, who is an expert on water policy.

"Water is a critical global link between physical processes, biological processes, ecosystems, and societies," Haddad said. "Water shapes global patterns of genetic diversity, drives ecosystem processes, and affects the health and economic potential of all human societies."

Several environmental research efforts currrently under way at UCSC will be expanded under the STEPS Institute. These include projects addressing the environmental and social consequences of genetic restructuring of ecosystems worldwide; geographic patterns in genetic diversity along the West Coast; ecological and genetic dynamics of parasite-host interactions across broad geographic landscapes; effects of environmental toxicants on large-scale environmental processes; and effects of changing hydrologic patterns and worldwide water use on environmental processes and on societies.

All these research problems require the linking of global and regional processes, using approaches that integrate science, technology, engineering, policy, and society, Thompson noted.

"That's what STEPS is all about," he said.

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