About the Nicholas School

more than a degree, a purpose

Duke Environment provides a unique opportunity for aspiring environmental leaders to pursue their passions. We bring together bright, talented, and ambitious people from across the globe whose interests vary from conservation to climate change and everything in between. They’re not just pursuing a job. They’re purpose-driven individuals who look beyond themselves to pursue a career that makes a positive contribution to the environment and the world.

Here in Durham, North Carolina, they work within one of the most active environmental communities in the country. They collaborate with highly motivated students, pioneering faculty, and working professionals as they pursue meaningful and impactful careers in an ever-changing arena that’s ripe for improvement and disruption. Our students graduate as leaders—capable of affecting change, spurring innovation, and inspiring others to action.

The School Mission

The Nicholas School’s mission, creating knowledge and global leaders of consequence for a sustainable future, is informed by Duke University’s theme of knowledge in the service of society and motivated by the need to restore and preserve the world’s environmental resources while adapting to a changing climate and a growing population with aspirations for rising standards of living. We strive to fulfill this mission by:

Creating Knowledge through
basic, applied, and multidisciplinary research in the relevant physical, life, and social sciences designed to expand our understanding of the Earth and its environment;

Creating Global Leaders through
an undergraduate academic program designed to spread understanding of the Earth and the environmental ethic to a new cadre of Duke graduates,

A professional masters program that trains a new breed of environmental professionals working in the public, private, and non-profit sectors with the skills needed to devise and implement effective environmental policies and practices, and

A Ph.D. program dedicated to adding to a new generation of world-class scientists, researchers, and educators in the environment;

Forging a Sustainable Future by strategically focusing the intellectual resources and capital amassed in research and education to address three of the most challenging environmental issues confronting society:

  • Climate and Energy
  • Terrestrial and Marine Ecosystems
  • Human Health and the Environment 

Research and Sustainability: Creating Knowledge to Address the Environmental Issues of a Generation

The Nicholas School applies its disciplinary strengths and basic research capabilities in the physical, biological, and social sciences to address three major and interrelated environmental issues facing society.

Climate and Energy
Global warming is arguably the most serious environmental issue of our time, and because the root cause is intimately tied to our energy infrastructure, it is also one of the most difficult. The challenges are to: (i) enhance our understanding of the global climate system and its dependence on the global cycling of greenhouse gases through marine and terrestrial ecosystems; (ii) develop adaptation strategies for the inevitable climate disruptions we will face in the coming decades; and (iii) map out a pathway for transitioning from our fossil-fuel dependent infrastructure to one that relies on renewables and low-carbon energy sources in a manner that avoids the most dangerous consequences of global warming.

Terrestrial and Marine Ecosystems
Ecosystems provide valuable services to society, such as clean water and air, timber, fisheries, food and fiber, irreplaceable gene pools, as well as natural vistas and diverse habitats that lift spirits and inspire creativity. Yet a recent assessment has concluded that upwards of 60% of the world’s ecosystems are degraded. Shrinking habitats threaten biodiversity, and toxic compounds endanger ecosystem function as well as human health are ubiquitous. Climate change is further disrupting ecosystem function worldwide, and rising populations and standards of living will place ever greater demands for natural resources and thus on the ecosystems that provide them. The challenges are to: (i) maintain ecosystem resources and biodiversity in the face of increasing pressures and demands on those resources; and (ii) understand how ecosystem function will respond to climate change and urbanization.

Human Health and the Environment
Every year we add myriad new chemicals to the environment. They include toxic compounds, such as endocrine disrupters, and chemicals such as nanoparticles for which we have little or no information as to how they affect human health and the environment. New insights obtained from the study of epigenetics suggests that exposure to these chemicals, especially in the early stages of life, can have profound, and even catastrophic effects. The challenges are to: (i) develop and apply a comprehensive methodology to identify hazardous compounds before they are released into the environment; (ii) map out pathways by which toxic compounds move through the environment, and how they are chemically altered as they do so; and (iii) identify the mechanisms by which toxic compounds disrupt ecosystem function, enter our food and water supply and affect human health.

Education and Sustainability: Training Global Leaders

Advancing an environmental agenda will require four categories of leaders: researchers, educators, practitioners, and citizens. The Nicholas School’s academic program seeks to train leaders in all of these categories:

Ph.D. Program
The Nicholas School’s core strength is derived from its rigorous and dynamic Ph.D. program where students and faculty collaborate on expanding the envelope of our understanding of how the earth systems, social systems, and interactions between them shape our world. The training received from the program prepares our graduates for careers as research scientists and educators working at universities and colleges and government and private sector laboratories, as well as entrepreneurs applying scientific and technological skills to advance for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

Degrees within the school are awarded in Environment, Earth and Ocean Sciences, and Marine Science and Conservation In addition, we participate in university Ph.D. programs in Ecology and in Environmental Policy (the latter awaiting final approval), and in a certificate program in Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health Program.

Professional Masters Program
Addressing the world’s environmental problems will require a legion of extraordinarily bright, committed, well-trained and educated professional environmental managers, deployed to strategic locations around the world and working on the ground with communities, governments, and corporations. The Nicholas School has been adding to that legion for decades through its professional master program which awards Masters of Environmental Management and Masters of Forestry as well as its dual degree programs with the Fuqua School of Business, the Law School, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and the Pratt School of Engineering.

The Nicholas School’s interdisciplinary focus trains our students to be effective practitioners of environmental stewardship and sustainable development – individuals who not only have the knowledge to understand environmental problems but the skill set needed to devise and implement effective policies and practices. Our alumni, now more than 3000 strong, are working in all sectors of society around the world making a tangible and lasting difference, changing people’s lives for the better, while spreading the ethic and knowledge of environmental stewardship.

Undergraduate Program
In signing the President’s Climate Commitment, Duke University pledged to make “climate neutrality and sustainability a part … the educational experience for all students.” As the primary academic environmental program on campus, the Nicholas School bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for meeting that goal. The school administers 4 undergraduate degree programs for students enrolled in Trinity College: an AB and BS in Environmental Sciences and an AB and BS in Earth and Ocean Science. It also runs a wide a variety of courses and extracurricular programs for non-majors.

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