Tennessee Tech to offer state's first environmental science doctorate

Environmental issues ranging from the thinning ozone layer to endangered species to beach erosion have dominated the national consciousness. Phrases like "acid rain," "global warming" and "biodiversity" have become part of the common language. The people whose job it is to search for solutions to such dilemmas will need to be more than good scientists and researchers, but also good communicators with a wide-ranging understanding of the issues at hand.

Recognizing this need, Tennessee Technological University is the first university in the state to offer a doctoral program in environmental science, which begins accepting applicants immediately with an eye toward starting in the fall. The program, nearly 10 years in the planning stage, recognizes the university's unique combination of facilities: its well-established graduate degree programs in both biology and chemistry, its accomplished Center of Excellence for Management, Utilization and Protection of Water Resources and its Cooperative Fisheries Unit.

The new program will provide the kind of broad-based education that allows graduates to approach problems with creativity and flexibility, to reach across the boundaries of one area of study. With concentrations in both chemistry and biology, potential students can combine expertise in various subjects with an understanding of working with researchers from other disciplines.

The doctoral program was approved by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission at its meeting Jan. 29. There are no other environmental science doctoral programs in Tennessee, although there are master's level programs in the state whose graduates are likely to be keenly interested in pursuing such a degree. Further, only a handful of doctoral programs in environmental science exist in the entire Southeast region ranging from Maryland to Florida.

"Tennessee Tech is best prepared to teach this environmental slant on the sciences," says Jack Armistead, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Tennessee Tech. "We have very strong, successful departments in biology and chemistry, and both departments consider environmental science an area of strength. And we've got the Water Center and the state's only federally recognized fisheries unit here, so I think it's an appropriate Ph.D. for us to offer."

In its proposal to the commission, the university cited the continuing growth of careers in various aspects of environmental studies and the need for workers with interdisciplinary skills in the field. Recent changes in environmental policy and regulation at national and local levels ensure that there will be a continuing need for highly trained environmental scientists with practical research experience and a wide range of skills.

"I often see ads for jobs for environmental scientists to work on new academic programs, with state and federal agencies and with private organizations," says Michael Harvey, chair of the biology department at Tennessee Tech. "There is a demand for environmental scientists with an interdisciplinary background."

Chris McGowan, chair of the university's chemistry department, concurs. "The environment and environmental clean-up are going to continue to be problems. Ads appear in journals for people who have a multi-disciplinary approach to solving environmental problems, and that's what the goal of this program is. It's necessary for someone who's involved in environmental clean-up not only to be able to talk to a chemist and a biologist, but to understand both of them." McGowan and Harvey have been heavily involved in developing the proposed curriculum since its inception.

In preparing the proposal, the university surveyed various businesses, asking whether they foresaw a growing labor market for graduates of such a program. Numerous organizations, including the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Mapco and Eastman Chemical Company, responded that the need for environmental scientists is likely to continue increasing for the coming years.

The advantage of the new program to the university would be an increased pool of talented students to assist with research. Harvey says, "Professors will have people working on research projects who are at a more advanced level and who can work at it for a longer period of time than a master's degree student."

"An exciting aspect of the program is that it will allow campus researchers to explore the environmental problems facing the state of Tennessee and the region at a more sophisticated level than has been previously possible," says Dennis George, director of the Water Center.

"Ever since we began talking about offering this degree eight or nine years ago," Harvey notes, "there have been numerous inquiries from potential Ph.D. students interested in this type of program, especially an interdisciplinary program."

Unlike the two other environmental science doctoral programs in the Southeast, Tennessee Tech's program is unique for its connection with the Water Center, which has already distinguished itself in multi-disciplinary research projects, and the Cooperative Fisheries Unit. Among the required classes for Tennessee Tech doctoral students are courses in sociology, agriculture and earth science.

"These courses give breadth to the program. The sociology class, for example, will address the impact of environmental issues on individuals and communities and will also look at some of the legal issues involved in environmental science," says McGowan.

McGowan continues, "The long-term benefits of this program will be seen when we start putting graduates out there who are, in fact, environmental scientists and can deal with issues that face the country today in terms of clean-up and problem-solving - and how to prevent pollution as well."