New Director, New Directions for the Gund Institute
- By Anna C Dirkse
In 2005, the Johnson House, home of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, underwent a drastic move, crossing Main Street to reside in its current physical location. Now, in 2012, it is moving in yet another direction as it expands as an institution. Recently appointed director of the Gund Institute, Taylor Ricketts has been responsible for guiding that movement.
Prior to arriving at the Gund Institute in fall of 2011, Taylor held the position of director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Conservation Science Program. An interest in connecting rigorous interdisciplinary research with real world problems brought him to the Gund Institute where he felt the benefits of a university setting with diverse disciplines could help realize his goal of achieving a broader research scope. His passion for science that addresses conservation issues is well-suited to the Institute's mission of bridging social and natural science to make the world better.
Taylor’s plan for the Gund Institute is one of inclusion. Part of his first year has focused on making sure that everyone at UVM and in the broader community knows about the Gund and understands its mission to conduct transdisciplinary research applied to real-world problems. Taylor is also actively reaching out to units on campus that haven't been as involved in the Gund Institute, such as the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and the College for Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.
The cross-cutting nature of interdisciplinary research allows for broad and exciting thinking, but runs the risk of creating an Institute that is "a mile wide and an inch deep." Taylor and the Gund fellows have resolved to combat this by maintaining a focus on the three main themes: ecological economics, nature's benefits, and sustainable landscapes and seascapes."I hope this new focus will make the Gund an Institute with expertise on a select number of very important issues – one that contributes deeply to those areas both intellectually and pragmatically," expressed Taylor.
Taylor envisions the Gund as the interaction space for the talented people throughout UVM to work across disciplines. The recent renovation of the Johnson House and reconfiguration of the conference room – now with state-of-the-art web conferencing – is one way to enable these interactions both with UVM and with outside collaborators. The Gund Institute also now awards faculty collaboration grants, available to Gund fellows to launch new collaborations with other fellows, UVM faculty, and students. "With Gund resources, we're finding ways to make it easier to collaborate, share ideas, and push the frontiers of science and practice," said Taylor.
Taylor is also expanding the Gund by hiring four new people, with a fifth to be added soon. The new faces include a postdoctoral research associate, Alicia Ellis; a research faculty member, Gillian Galford; a fellow from WWF, Brendan Fisher (PhD-NR '06); and a research coordinator, Deidre Zoll. Another postdoctoral research associate and additional research faculty are slated to be hired. Part of Deidre's job is to identify the support that Gund fellows need to collaborate successfully and to help researchers find and apply for interdisciplinary research grants. It is often difficult to find funding for work that falls between disciplines – the research is too applied for granting organizations such as the National Science Foundation and too research-oriented for other foundations. Deidre is helping to combat this difficulty.
In addition to faculty and staff, students form a central part of the Gund Institute, with 25 students pursuing a certificate in ecological economics. In Taylor's opinion, "students are the engine of a lot of the work here," and he credits the newest and most novel ideas to them. He also noted that it is often students who pursue concrete projects focused on tangible outcomes. Students are also involved in the governance of the Gund Institute and help to run weekly seminars and allocate small grants to fellow students. Starting this year, students can suggest the types of training opportunities they would benefit from, and Gund staff will organize an intensive training session, with topics ranging from media relations to multi-variate statistics.
Two future areas of strength for the Gund Institute that are of particular interest to students are food systems and climate change. Collaborative research groups have also directed their attention to understanding how to connect ecosystems with human health. With the full support of the University of Vermont and the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, the Gund Institute is poised to help contribute to meaningful, interdisciplinary research for Vermont and beyond.