HomeNewsDirector’s almanac: February 2018

Director’s almanac: February 2018

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring. —Aldo Leopold

Hi there! Welcome to what I plan to be a regular blog post from the me, the director of the Institute on the Environment, containing what’s on my mind, things I’m up to, and what has me jazzed at IonE, the U and elsewhere.

Why read it? Maybe you have time to kill. Maybe you’re wondering how my weird mind works. Or maybe you’re just so committed to IonE that you can’t read enough about it. No matter the reason: I welcome your feedback about the value of this blog and the topics I’m covering – or if you might like to write a guest post. So here we go!


Other than kid pick-up, the training plan for my next half marathon and what the family is going to have for dinner tonight, my interest and attention is divided among a few different topics right now.

First, a few things that made my heart swell at IonE this past month…

Congrats to Kate Brauman (one of our IonE lead scientists) and Steve Polasky (an IonE Fellow), who are co-authors on a new paper, published in Science, which advances our definition and understanding of ecosystem services and the value of nature to people to include indigenous and local perspectives, and a wider range non-material benefits. This paper is just one more example of the importance of our institute’s mission: to lead the way to a future where people and planet prosper together. The paper grew out of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Speaking Science was inspiring and fun! On January 11, IonE was a lead organizer, with the College of Science and Engineering and the College of Biological Sciences, of a day-long communications conference for faculty and research staff, plus some lucky post-docs and grad students. The afternoon breakouts were based on our Boreas Leadership Program workshops. Here’s an awesome, humbling piece of feedback we heard from one participant: “Overall, it was one of the best trainings/events I have been to in my career.”

And on January 26, IonE hosted another Sustainability Education Summit, an outgrowth of the IonE Educators program. The summits include participants from a range of disciplines and are digitally co-hosted on all five UMN campuses, which allows people to connect widely and share best practices in teaching and innovation in sustainability.

With my IonE leadership hat on…

Those of you who have direct connections to the University of Minnesota may know that we’ve embarked on an ambitious capital campaign. For my part – for IonE’s part – I’ve been working to make fundraising a priority for my time and attention each week. Jan Gerstenberger and I are working together to make meaningful connections with more individuals who share our mission and vision.

Individual philanthropy is a key ingredient of fundraising in higher education, but it’s not something IonE has prioritized in past. The great news is that we had growing success with individual giving at the end of 2017 – and I’m so proud that IonE staff and affiliates were among the contributors. Thank you!

I’m also thinking a lot about strategy. In short: Now that we have celebrated turning 10, we have an opportunity to define – together – what our next decade will hold. I’m confident that IonE has the right ingredients for success in our culture and values. We also have the right people. I also recognize that our community has grown and changed in the past 10 years, as has the world – and we have an opportunity to be clearer and more concise about our goals.

Right now I’m strongly influenced by a Harvard Business Review article that asks: “Can you say what your strategy is?” It argues that everyone in an organization should be explain its strategy in 35 words or less. I want us to get there. We will get there.

As always, I also do some research…

This past week I’ve been helping manage a paper arising from a former PhD student that was accepted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s a cool paper: We studied thousands of butterflies collected in the 1980s and compared them to thousands we collected in the late 2000s, using genomic techniques to see how climate change has affected a zone of interbreeding between two related species. We found that the zone where the two species hybridize has moved – and the amount the hybrid zone has moved corresponds to the amount that the climate has warmed.

Why should anyone care? Because climate change is molding and changing life on Earth – and we have to know how before we can design management techniques to stop or slow it. (Of course, you’ll want to read the full paper when it comes out  – yes, you will want to! – so I’ll be sure to include the link in a future blog post.)

I’m also teaching this term with Rebecca Montgomery (another one of our IonE Fellows) and Leslie Brandt, a weekly seminar about climate change adaptation for natural resources. We have about 30 participants and will be working our way through species vulnerability assessments, to climate projection data, to economic assessment of impacts, and ways of building new management strategies that account for climate change. I’m excited about it.

Finally, like the rest of you, I keep an eye on the rest of the world…

Right now, I’m reading about Greek philosophy and the origin of the academy – related to some thinking I’m doing about how IonE is, at its heart, a modern version of the power of inquiry and discussion to bring about wisdom. Feeling smarter as a result.

I’m also still feeling frustrated about last week’s news that tariffs will be added to imported solar panels. The decision is expected to increase solar prices, just as solar is beginning to be price-competitive with coal and natural gas. Think: fewer solar projects, fewer solar jobs. And the U.S. needs, desperately, to increase solar energy production to save ourselves and our future. Would our government put tariffs on other things Americans really need? Life-saving drugs? Medical equipment?


Now with very tired fingers, that’s enough for one post! Please let me know what you think of this blog – and I’ll give it another shot in the coming weeks.

In planetary prosperity,


P.S. Have you ever wondered: Why sign off with planetary prosperity? It reflects our mission statement, and it’s truly what I want. I want to be happy and to do well, and I want other living things to prosper too.

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