Autumn 2016

Art and environmental perceptions

Does seeing an image of plastic bags floating in the ocean influence people to be more environmentally friendly (top photo by Rich Carey)? That’s what Bob Turner, professor of economics and environmental studies, hopes to find out.

Professor Bob Turner teaching in classroom

Professor Bob Turner has helped to expand the environmental studies program to include environmental economics. Photo by Mark DiOrio

In Turner’s current research study, participants are asked a set of questions designed by psychologists that assesses their opinions on the state of the environment’s health. Next, one group is shown an artistic image of a whale, accompanied by text explaining that the whale image is composed of 50,000 plastic bags — equal to the estimated number of pieces of floating plastic in a square mile of the world’s oceans. Other groups see different combinations of image and/or text. Sometimes, a photograph of bags in the ocean replaces the whale image. Afterward, all participants answer a subset of the initial survey questions and questions on their beliefs about plastic bag pollution.

Although the study is ongoing, so far, Turner has found that those who are shown either one of the images and/or the text become more pro-environment. “It’s an open question whether environmental art, by itself, has an impact, but clearly information seems to matter,” he said. “I’m hoping the research will narrow down the ways, and in what circumstances, the art has an impact.”

Turner first started thinking about the effects of art on people’s thoughts about the environment during a 2008 visit to Colgate by the Canary Project, which produces art and media about ecological issues. But it wasn’t until several years later, when Turner was invited to speak at a conference on scientific communication, that he decided to pursue it further.

In the fall of 2014, Turner designed a new Scientific Perspectives class, called Environmental Activism, Science, and the Arts. Through working with students in the class, which discussed art, psychology, statistics, and the environment, Turner modified his study to this current iteration. Students from that class worked with him on the design of his survey instrument.


Geography alumni: on the map

Sal Curasi ’15 and a fellow researcher work with research equipment in the field.

Pictured here doing field research, Sal Curasi ’15 (left) recently published his senior thesis in a special issue of Environmental Research Letters that focuses on arctic and boreal vegetation dynamics. (Photo by Chris Linder)

It’s relatively uncommon for alumni to publish their student theses in a professional journal, but even more so when it happens within the same department and in the same issue.

Geography majors Sal Curasi ’15 and Wil Lieberman-Cribbin ’14 did research under the tutelage of Professor Mike Loranty and then wrote their honors theses. Environmental Research Letters recently published the papers, co-authored by Loranty, in a special issue focusing on arctic and boreal vegetation dynamics.

Curasi traveled to Siberia, Russia, with Loranty in the summer of 2014 to research water flow, vegetation growth, and carbon cycling. Loranty was part of a National Science Foundation project designed to take students to the region for fieldwork.

“We picked a research site and turned them loose,” Loranty said. “Sal was the driving force on this project.”

Curasi found that areas of subsurface water flow, called water tracks, can help scientists make predictions about carbon cycling in arctic ecosystems, which influences climate change.

Now in his second year of a biological sciences PhD program at Notre Dame University, Curasi is still researching the topic. “The research I did as an undergrad led me to the position I’m currently in,” Curasi said. “I actually met my graduate adviser at a conference while presenting the research I did with Mike.”

Lieberman-Cribbin began working with Loranty as a researcher the summer before his senior year. The pair co-authored a paper that focuses on vegetation change and soil in arctic-boreal permafrost ecosystems.

Lieberman-Cribbin is now pursuing a master’s in public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. His current work — using geographic information systems to study lung cancer and racial disparities across New York State — involves similar tools and problem-solving approaches that he used in his research with Loranty.

“These two papers are a really nice illustration of what geography is,” Loranty said. “Sal and I were looking at a pretty small area in northeastern Siberia, but Wil’s research was looking at the entire arctic and subarctic.”


Live and Learn

A capital experience

My internship was full of unforgettable memories, but I will always remember the days following the tragic shootings in Orlando, Fla., when I sat in the House gallery watching Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. participate in the gun control sit-in. It was a rare opportunity to witness civic action firsthand at the highest levels of our democracy.

I spent the summer as a legislative intern in her Washington, D.C. office, gaining valuable experience in government and politics. Slaughter, the oldest woman in Congress, has represented the Rochester, N.Y., area for nearly 30 years, and currently sits as the ranking member of the Rules Committee, which she chaired from 2007 to 2011. During that time, she was instrumental in moving landmark legislation — such as the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act — through Congress.

My job varied from day to day, but primary tasks included researching policy issues to reply to constituent inquiries, relaying information that I gathered at policy briefings to legislative staffers, giving tours of the Capitol building to visiting members of the district, and answering phone calls.

Some of my most enriching experiences in Washington were listening to famous speakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Jeff Merkley, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. At the end of the internship, I completed a research project, including a set of memos to be delivered to the congresswoman, on a piece of pending legislation of my choice.

Spending the summer on Capitol Hill affirmed my commitment to public service as a personal passion and long-term career goal. While I was sad to leave a place that so often felt like the center of the universe, I know I’ll be back in the future.

— Doug Whelan ’19

Fanned out across the globe to apply their liberal arts know-how in real-world settings this past summer, students wrote about their experiences.


Singapore swap

Students looking for a dynamic off-campus experience that also allows them to engage in scientific research will have more options in 2017, thanks to a new agreement between Colgate and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Representatives of the two schools signed a memorandum of understanding in June, creating a new exchange program to benefit students from both institutions, and to act as a catalyst for faculty collaboration.

The agreement affords new research options for students in the departments of mathematics, computer science, biology, chemistry, and physics and astronomy. Jason Meyers, associate professor of biology, will lead the first group of Colgate students to Singapore in the fall of 2017 but, unlike other full-semester study groups, Meyers will accompany students for just a few weeks before returning to campus in Hamilton to teach.

In the spring of 2018, NUS students, already acquainted with students from Colgate, will then come to Hamilton  to take courses, conduct research, and experience the liberal arts curriculum.

“Undergraduate research isn’t common at large institutions internationally, so there was a short list of places that are rigorous and strong in the sciences, but that also applaud undergraduate research,” said Nicole Simpson, associate dean of the faculty for international initiatives.

Because NUS has existing relationships with Yale and Cornell universities, NUS’s faculty and administrators are already familiar with the liberal arts, and their curriculum has rigorous standards akin to Colgate’s.

The new partnership was developed, in part, thanks to Ed ’62, P’10 and Robin Lampert P’10, who supported the founding of Colgate’s Lampert Institute for Civic and Global Affairs.



Stack of classic literature

Environmental Problems and
Environmental Activism in China

Carolyn L. Hsu, Associate Professor of Sociology
April K. Baptiste, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
MW 1:20–2:35 p.m., Alumni Hall 207

Course description: This course explores China’s complex environmental issues — including their historical roots and social implications — as well as the rise of environmental social activism. At the end of the semester, students will travel to Beijing, Kunming, and Lijiang, China, for two weeks to examine sites of environmental problems, meet with activists to discuss their work, and conduct research on air pollution, waste disposal, and environmental education.

Key assignment: The class will prepare a final research project on a range of topics, including water and air pollution, wilderness protection, endangered species, and renewable energy. Students will work together to examine the complexities of the problem that they studied during their trip in a geographical, sociological, historical, political, and scientific context.

The professors say: “Students will learn about China’s environmental issues and all of their complexities from an interdisciplinary perspective, as well as the ways that power, privilege, and identity intersect with these concerns.” — Carolyn Hsu

“This course highlights the innovative pedagogy of intergroup dialogue that encourages students to engage in conversations about difficult and often controversial topics. Students will be challenged in new ways by recognizing how their intersecting identities influence and shape their worldviews about environmental issues.” — April Baptiste