A New Look at the World
UD’s new College of Earth, Ocean and Environment embarks on a mission that extends far beyond the Delaware coast.
Epifanio knows the bay well, having been a professor in the University of Delaware College of Marine Studies, based in Lewes, since 1971. For the past three years, however, he hasn’t had as much time to fish. His college has changed its name and broadened its mission.
In July, its 40th anniversary, the College of Marine and Earth Studies became the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. It is not only an academic institution, but, now, an environmental steward for the world.
“When you combine the earth, the ocean and the environment, you’ve pretty much got it all,” says Epifanio.
The college traces its roots to 1950, when local fishermen, alarmed by a decline in Delaware Bay fisheries, asked the Delaware General Assembly for help. The legislature responded by allocating $30,000 to establish a marine biology program at the University of Delaware.
In 1976 UD became the nation’s ninth sea grant college and an increasingly important center for marine research. Officially designated as the College of Marine Studies in 1970, it was a graduate college until 2006, when the department of geological sciences came aboard. CEOE now offers classes for more than 200 undergraduate majors on the Newark campus and research opportunities around the world for 160 graduate students.
“Environmental science by its very nature is global,” says Epifanio, an associate dean. “The university intends that this college be a leader in environmental sciences, and this merger couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Never before has the threat of severe climate change and the need to regulate it been so crucial. “More and more, the basis of our mission brings in the human condition, the link between science and society,” says Dean Nancy Targett. “Your name is your brand, and these new directions we’re making are reflective of the fact that the earth, the ocean and the environment don’t exist as individual silos.”
Targett began at UD in 1984 as a biochemist. As part of her study, she lived in an underwater laboratory off the coast of the U.S. Virgin Islands and did research on the coral reefs in Belize, the Bahamas and Jamaica. She became dean of CEOE in 2006. She also serves as director of the Delaware Sea Grant College Program.
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Targett is pointing to a world map that is marked where the college’s researchers are working today. Projects are now being done in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans, and throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, and North and South America. It is a long way from the college’s original focus on the Delaware coast.
The college is in China, too. In 2008 the CEOE and the College of Oceanography and Environmental Science at Xiamen University formed the Joint Institute for Coastal Research and Management. Believed to be the first alliance of China and the United States in marine science, the institute has already brokered faculty exchanges, held an international workshop on climate change and created a Website, where articles by researchers from both universities can be found.
Closer to home, the CEOE is investigating the effects of light and nutrient sources on plant life and fish in Delaware’s inland bays; examining the impact of different sources of nitrogen on gene expression, photobiology, and the ecology of harmful algae common to Delaware waters; comparing the habitat-specific growth and productivity of striped bass in Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay nursery grounds; predicting the combined impacts of rising carbon monoxide and temperature in coastal Delaware; assessing regional offshore wind resources; and studying whether salt-tolerant plants can be used as a sources of biofuels.
Such research could be conducted in a vacuum and disseminated only among colleagues, but CEOE researchers are collaborating across disciplines and sharing their findings with people who influence public policy. Among CEOE’s 60 faculty are two research economists, two legal scholars, an anthropologist, a political scientist, and a marine transportation expert.
“Science creates technology, and science provides the necessary input into policy-making,” Epifanio says. “Our college has the people who study policy housed cheek to jowl with our scientists. Here the link from science to policy is simply a transfer of ideas. The outcome of what we study is information that could be generated into legislation.”
The CEOE also has innovative new vehicles and instruments for environmental research. For several years, much of its research was conducted exclusively on the Hugh R. Sharp, a 146-foot vessel. In May 2009, thanks to a donation from alumna Rachel Jewett Ledbetter, the college added an airship, believed to be the first of its kind in a university setting.
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The low-altitude environmental analysis dirigible is used by students for classes in geography, civil and environmental engineering, urban planning, and agricultural and natural resources. From the blimp, researchers can collect data on climate variability, shoreline erosion and other environmental phenomena.
CEOE’s work dovetails with one of the university’s key missions: uniting scientific research with the study of public policy. In support of this commitment, the university established The Delaware Environmental Institute in October. DENIN focuses on providing solutions to global environmental challenges, so it is closely allied with CEOE. It focuses on three areas: processes where air, land and sea interface; environmental forecasting and restoration; and ecosystem health and sustainability.
For nearly four decades, Epifanio was one of the nation’s foremost experts on the migrations of the blue crab. His work took him everywhere on the Delaware Bay. His role as director of the School of Marine Science and Policy at the CEOE is now largely one of leadership and counsel, so he looks forward to getting back out on the bay in the fall. The reward is greater than catching one of those stripers.
“It happens every so often when I look around at the water,” he says. “I think that what I’ve done in my career has had a definite impact on how Delawareans view their environment and how we look at our world.”
“Our college has a new footprint in the world,” Targett says. “Everything we do from now on will be looked at not only from its impact on Delaware, but from a global perspective as well.”