University of Vermont

Alan McIntosh, Long-Time Chair of RSENR Environmental Sciences Program, Retires

Professor Alan McIntosh retires after 30 years with the Rubenstein School.
Professor Alan McIntosh retires after 30 years with the Rubenstein School.

Professor Alan McIntosh dedicated his career to introducing thousands of high school and UVM students to the environmental sciences. As one of many “firsts,” he developed the proposal for the environmental sciences program in the Rubenstein School and chaired the program for 18 years. His work in environmental sciences and its application to real world and community issues have reached throughout Burlington, the Lake Champlain Basin, and nationally. Following an illustrious and enjoyable career, Alan retires in June after 30 years on the faculty in the Rubenstein School.

Alan grew up in Illinois and attended the University of Illinois where he graduated with a BS in zoology and married his wife Barbara one week after graduation.  He then earned his MS in zoology at the same institution and his PhD in limnology from Michigan State University.  In 1972, he joined the faculty at Purdue University in their School of Pharmacology’s environmental health program, where he taught classes and participated in a National Science Foundation-funded project and advised a large team of MS and PhD students.

Once Barbara finished her PhD work at Purdue, they moved to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where Alan headed up the university’s water research center.  In 1984, Barbara accepted a faculty position in UVM’s School of Business. For six years, Alan commuted between Vermont and New Jersey, serving as the director of both New Jersey’s and Vermont’s water centers, each part of the National Institutes for Water Resources.  In 1989, Alan joined UVM as a full-time faculty member and continued to run the School’s Water Resources and Lake Studies Center until he passed the position to Professor Breck Bowden in 2005.

For many years, Alan and his graduate students conducted research on the health of Lake Champlain as part of a large, multi-investigator EPA-funded project with the Lake Champlain Basin Program and with critical support from Vermont’s U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy.  In the early years, Alan collaborated with late Professor Allen Hunt of UVM’s Geology Department and colleagues in Rhode Island.

With former Rubenstein School Professor Mary Watzin and graduate student and research technician Deb Lester (MS-WR ’93), Alan conducted the first and only comprehensive assessment of toxic substances in Lake Champlain.  Their discovery of extremely high levels of PCBs in Cumberland Bay led the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to begin a clean-up project that successfully removed the PCB contamination. The team also tremendously raised public awareness of the high levels of toxic substances in Burlington Harbor and Outer Malletts Bay. Through his applied research, Alan mentored several graduate students who now work in the fields of ecotoxicology, risk assessment, and storm water management.

Deb, who is now the supervisor of the Toxicology and Contaminant Assessment Unit for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks in Seattle, writes, “I am very grateful to ‘Al Mac’ for being a great teacher, advisor, mentor, and friend. In his own subtle way, he helped me gain confidence in my abilities as an ecotoxicologist, scientist, and technical writer. I believe he has had a significant influence on my career success.”

As consultants to the Lake Champlain Committee, Alan and Mary also recommended remediation of Burlington’s Pine Street Barge Canal which led to the capping of many gallons of liquid coal tar beneath the canal which empties into Lake Champlain. More recently, Alan monitored storm water runoff from the UVM campus and made management recommendations to the Campus Planning Services office. He also initiated the EPA-funded “Redesigning the American Neighborhood” project, later managed by Breck Bowden, to involve community members in taking small steps to mitigate storm water runoff in two South Burlington housing developments.

Alan was the first faculty member to install a research trailer at the site of the current Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory to gain a foothold on the Burlington waterfront.  His and other efforts eventually led to the building of the Rubenstein Lab in 1999. As another first, Alan wrote and shepherded the proposal to start a PhD program in Natural Resources in the School, and in 1997, Rick Strimbeck, our first doctoral student received his degree.

In 1995, Alan wrote a proposal for an undergraduate joint SNR and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences environmental sciences degree with support of then Dean Larry Forcier and a group of UVM faculty.  Soon after, the College of Arts and Sciences became the third unit on campus to offer an environmental sciences major.

“UVM had a tremendous number of students with an interest in the environment and strengths in the sciences,” states Alan.  “At the time, most peer institutions offered an environmental sciences program, and we felt it was an appropriate time at UVM to start a program for students who could use the sciences to learn to mitigate human impacts on the environment.”

Alan chaired the SNR/RSENR environmental sciences (ENSC) program from its inception until 2013 when he handed the reins to Associate Professor Deane Wang.  As part of the program and the highlight of his career, for 19 years, Alan taught an average of 75 students each semester in the introductory ENSC 1 course.

“Students in this first-year course had a fresh enthusiasm and got fired up by the applied nature of environmental science,” states Alan. “I enjoyed challenging students to think about their role in the environment and showing them how they can have an impact during their lifetimes.”

In later years, Alan taught ENSC majors in the fall session and non-majors in the spring session.  A substantial number of those non-majors transferred into environmental sciences.  He also co-instructed Pollution Ecology, most recently with Research Associate Gary Hawley, and taught Toxic Substances which he had offered since 1978 at Rutgers and up until the very last time this spring semester at UVM.

Alan enjoyed teaching so much that he continued during the summer months. For the last ten years, he taught an online version of ENSC 1 for two sessions during the summer.  He was involved in teaching for an institute on Lake Champlain for high school teachers and in administering a summer fellowship that brought visiting scientists to campus.  For six years, as the precursor to his summer online ENSC course, he instructed a summer online Advanced Placement (AP) environmental science course for high school students in the Northeast whose schools did not offer the class.  The online course prepared students to take the AP environmental science exam through Alan’s web materials in conjunction with live labs conducted by science teachers at the schools. Alan feels strongly that students who take the AP course are very successful in the Rubenstein School and at UVM.

Alan is now serving a five-year team as Chief Reader for the AP environmental science national exam.  He works with the College Board and Educational Testing Service to help write the exams and handle the logistics of assembling more than 300 high school and college teachers into one location to grade the essay portion of the exam.

Alan was also heavily involved with the Greening of Aiken.  Many years ago, Alan, Gary, Deane, and Senior Researcher Carl Waite were the founding proponents of the Greening of Aiken process.  “Students in my ENSC classes were sitting in a most inefficient and inhumane building,” notes Alan. “Conditions were not conducive to teaching, learning, or working in the building, and it was sending the wrong message to our students.  Now in our newly renovated, green Aiken Center, students are getting a much more positive message and a hands-on demonstration of what a sustainable building is all about.”

Gary acknowledges, “Alan has been a great colleague and mentor to me for over a decade, and I really value his passion for working with students in both environmental sciences and our Greening of Aiken efforts.  He has pushed our greening group to do many things that we would not have attempted without him, and he loves to keep environmental science students up to date with his daily ‘ENSC in current events’. And on a lighter note, you have to love his obsession with monitoring upcoming weather events!” 

Alan, Gary, Dean, and Carl helped to start up the Greening of Aiken Intern class, more recently administered by Gary and in its 13th year. Several hundred student interns have gained experience in research, implementation, and demonstration of green building design through this coursework.

“I will miss the students the most,” admits Alan, who was a first-year advisor. “They change so much from terrified newbies to confident adults.  I enjoy helping them develop their career paths, and many have gone onto graduate school at my suggestion.  I realize you can’t influence all of them, but if you can help a percentage of them find their way, you did okay.”

His dedication to teaching and the discipline of environmental sciences won’t stop with retirement. Alan will work on an environmental science case study textbook that he feels is missing from the discipline. Assistant Professor Jennifer Pontius will write a chapter on the math and tools required for the study of environmental science.  Alan and others will write chapters, including data sets and graphs, on real-life international case studies that encourage students to think about how our actions in one geographic location can have a ripple effect far away — for example, about how a farmer in the northern United States has an environmental effect on the formation of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

Besides work on his book and the AP exam, Alan and Barbara plan to travel and spend time with their son’s and daughter’s families, especially their grandsons.