Building on the College’s proximity to three distinctive ecosystems, its commitment to cutting-edge genomics research, and its emphasis on experiential learning, Oxy embraces an interdisciplinary approach to environmental science.
Trustee Dave Anderson ’63 went into the newly emerging field of environmental law almost by accident, thanks to a stint in the Coast Guard Reserve that found him helping to develop an early oil spill response plan. But as his pioneering career grew, he was reminded how his own education hadn’t made the connections he often found in his work between such seemingly disparate fields as political science, biology, and economics.
“Oxy was no different than the Ivy League or any other college or university in the early ’60s. Everyone taught their subject in their own individual silo,” says Anderson, a member of the national Land Trust Alliance board, former general counsel of the California Air Resources Board, and past board member of the California Nature Conservancy. “We’ve come a long way since then—I’m pleased to see how environmental science and law have become part of our thinking as a global community.”
Fueled by a desire to encourage that kind of interdisciplinary approach, Anderson has provided the lead gift for what will be known as the Anderson Center for Environmental Sciences at Occidental. When the $12.7-million project is completed in 2020, the 14,000 square feet of renovated space in the Robert T. Moore Laboratory of Zoology and some adjacent portions of the Bioscience building will provide enhanced teaching, research, and exhibition space, including the cutting-edge Fletcher Jones Foundation Genomics Center.
“The Anderson Center will provide a focal point for an exciting interdisciplinary program that extends across campus and takes full advantage of Oxy’s unique location at the nexus of three distinctive ecosystems: the Pacific Ocean, the San Gabriel Mountains, and the Mojave Desert,” says President Jonathan Veitch.
At the heart of the Anderson Center will be the 65,000 specimens in the Moore Collection, the world’s largest assemblage of Mexican birds. Together with the College’s Cosman Shell Collection, which has more than 117,000 specimens of gastropods and bivalves from around the world, Oxy will be in an enviable position to take advantage of scientific advances made after the collections were assembled. The field of genomics—the interdisciplinary study of the structure, function, evolution, mapping, and editing of DNA—has transformed natural history collections like these into an extraordinary source of potential new insights into biodiversity and environmental change.
In the most basic sense, environmental science is about solving problems, says Gretchen North, the John W. McMenamin Endowed Chair in Biology. “When I first started in this field, ecology was theory,” she remembers. “When you approached an issue, you would approach it from the perspective of how does this system work ideally? What hypotheses can you test that are borne out in this ideal system? But it’s not for purists anymore. It’s for people who want to roll up their sleeves and address a real problem.”
Oxy’s approach to environmental science is distinctive, says geology professor Margi Rusmore, who chaired the Environmental Stewardship, Policy, and Science Task Force for the College’s strategic planning process.
In lieu of a traditional major, environmental science students at Oxy develop a broad base in the field through a series of seven required courses in biology, geology, and economics, as well as completing a major in biology or geology. “We have a truly interdisciplinary program in which students become an expert in one field,” Rusmore says. “We have taken the tack of providing students with a strong foundation in a science, and coupling that with remarkable research opportunities.”
Whether it’s overseas or just a short drive from campus, research is central to environmental science at Oxy. Since 1966, the College’s Vantuna Research Group has been monitoring the marine environment of Southern and Baja California—producing both the longest continual time series studies of rocky reefs in the world and the largest spatial scale studies of reefs in the Southern California bight, now a go-to baseline for researchers and policymakers.
“Our location in Los Angeles is absolutely critical to what we do,” says North. “Marine biology has an incredible living laboratory to work with. Plants are active all year round. But we also have a really good tradition of fieldwork in geology and biology. Instead of working through other people’s data, we generate our own.”
When completed, the Anderson Center’s new Fletcher Jones Genomics Lab will allow biologists to expand on the innovative genetic research that they and their students already have underway. “This brings our research facilities up to speed, to better support the kind of research going on here,” says McCormack. “It opens up a lot of possible new research directions for us.”
Associate professor of biology Joseph Schulz and his students also will be using the lab to process material from the Cosman Shell Collection. The potential impact of the genetic research of both birds and snails is far-reaching, whether the goal is identification of new species or monitoring changes in habitats and populations that potentially reflect the effects of climate change.
Both the Moore and Cosman collections will eventually be digitized (including the possibility of 3-D scanning), which will make them available to researchers around the world. And students are involved in every aspect of the work. “We’re committed to have students directly participate as colleagues. They are co-authors and they go to meetings,” Schulz says. “I’m known in my field as the scientist who brings his undergraduate students to conferences. It’s what we do in Oxy bio.”
New tenure-track faculty hires in biology and geology over the last three years have been made with an eye to what they can contribute to the interdisciplinary work underway. In biology, Amanda Zellmer combines her interest in amphibians with computational analyses of spatial ecological and evolutionary processes, while Amber Stubler is studying how human impacts are changing marine ecosystem function, with an emphasis on ocean acidification and rising temperatures. In geology, Darren Larsen is investigating sedimentary formations to develop a greater understanding of Earth’s climate shifts, while Christopher Oze is looking at the geochemical evolution of a variety of metals and gases and how they may contribute to larger processes including climate change.
Building on what is already a distinctive program, the new Anderson Center “puts us on the map,” says McCormack. “We are planting a flag as a liberal arts college doing high-tech research. This will bring a lot of people in—not just students, but collaborators and researchers from other institutions.”
Up until now, “Too much of environmental decision-making has been political and not fact-based,” Anderson says. “We want environmental science students to become very knowledgeable in such a way that enables them to move on to grad school or into the public and private sectors and focus on these important issues we face now.
“We want to create the next generation of leaders in the field,” he says—and the environment at Oxy will support that.