July Update: Awards, Conservation Efforts, Snake Parasites and more...

July 1, 2016

A weekly roundup of what's new and noteworthy around the Nicholas School

Hi Everyone

It is hot and quiet in Durham. We've had one thunderstorm after another roll through as the temperatures soar. But, after all, it is July. And while it may be quiet in Environment Hall, many staff, faculty and PhD students are still here and are as busy as during the school year.

Today a group will be gathering on the roof to do a 360-degree video of working in the garden, which is thriving despite the heat. The video will be shown at a special 360-degree video info session, which will be held at 3 p.m., Monday, Aug. 1, in Field Auditorium. Our own Donna Sell worked with the folks at the Duke Digital Initiative, the Center for Instructional Technology and the Office of Information Technology to bring it to the Nicholas School. Sign up here if you'd like to attend. It's open to the Duke Community.

Hope you are enjoying your internships, your vacations, your research, your travels. I'll see everyone back in Durham and at the Marine Lab in August.

On to the news.


  1. I’m happy to report that earlier this month, Duke awarded Curt Richardson the John O. Blackburn Distinguished Professorship in recognition of his seminal contributions to the field of wetland science. Curt becomes the fifth Nic School faculty member to receive a university-wide Distinguished Professorship this year. Please join me in congratulating him on this high honor.
  2. PhD students Jessica Brandt and Danielle Purifoy have received EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowships. The three-year fellowships will fund Jessica’s work to assess coal combustion residuals’ long-lasting impacts on downstream freshwater ecosystems, and Danielle’s work on how political geography affects environmental justice in the United States. Emily Bernhardt and Rich Di Giulio are Jessica’s faculty advisors; Megan Mullin advises Danielle. Kudos all around! 
  3. As oil palm production expands from Southeast Asia into Africa, a study led by John Poulsen and 2014 MEM grad Mark Burton finds that converting Africa’s tropical forests into monoculture palm plantations will cause a significant spike in carbon emissions unless governments enact mandatory conservation measures (see photo above by John Paulsen of a palm oil plantation abutting a forest in Gabon, Africa.). By allowing only low-carbon forests to be cleared and requiring that one acre of forest be conserved for every 2.6 acres put into production, any increased emissions could be offset within 25 years, the study finds. Learn more here.   
  4. Chesapeake Conservancy, a Maryland-based environmental NGO led by Nic School alum Joel Dunn (MEM/MPP ’04), has garnered a major honor for its innovative use of conservation technology. Joel and his team won the inaugural ESRI “See, Find, Share” Award  for its work to develop cutting-edge, low-cost geospatial conservation tools and make them accessible to environmental NGOs, community organizations, government agencies and conservation practitioners throughout the Chesapeake Bay region and worldwide. Fellow MEMs alums Jeff Allenby, Colin Stief and Cassandra Pallai also work at Chesapeake Conservancy.  
  5. A study out this week by Lincoln Pratson and PhD alum Stacey Worman suggests that rocks formed by fast-spreading tectonic plates beneath the ocean may be a large and, until now, overlooked source of free hydrogen gas. Their finding could have far-ranging implications since scientists believe H2 might be the fuel source responsible for triggering life on Earth and – if found in large enough quantities – could be used as a clean-burning substitute for fossil fuels today. Emily Klein co-authored the study. 
  6. Amilcare Porporato has won the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Hydrologic Sciences Award in recognition of his lifetime contributions to hydrology research and education. It’s a richly deserved honor. You can read more about it here
  7. Drew Shindell has co-authored a new study in Nature Climate Change that finds emissions from ocean-going ships are aggravating air pollution in Asia and causing thousands of deaths a year. The study estimates that sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from ships now cause about 24,000 premature deaths a year across East Asia, mainly from heart and lung diseases and cancer. About three-quarters of the deaths occur in China. Mortality rates have also risen in Japan, Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and South Korea. 
  8. Susan Lozier has been awarded a 2016 Excellence Professorship from the Professor Werner Petersen Foundation in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the field of physical oceanography. The award carries a 20,000 Euro cash prize to help fund future collaborative research by Susan with scientists at the German foundation. Closer to home, Susan has also been selected to be speaker at Duke’s annual Convocation for Graduate and Professional School Students this August.  
  9. Erica Weinthal has been named editor of Global Environmental Politics. She’s been an associate editor at the journal, which is published by MIT Press, for the past five years and will begin her new stint as editor starting in February 2018. 
  10. Melissa Cole Johnson MEM ’97 has been appointed to the advisory board of the Roberts Environmental Center at Claremont-McKenna College. As a board member, she’ll help guide the center’s programs to train students in environmental research and analysis. It’s a natural fit for Melissa, who, in her day job, serves as director of the nonprofit Nature Bridge, which provides children’s environmental science programs in our national parks. 
  11. A video filmed this May of Renata Leite Pitman capturing a 2.3 meter-long yellow-tailed cribo (Drymarchon corais) as part of her research on snake parasites at Los Amigos Biological Station in Peru has gone viral on the Internet! More than 11 million YouTube and Facebook users have viewed the video – humorously but erroneously titled “BadAss Woman Tackles 6-Foot Snake” – which shows Renata, a trained ecologist and veterinary physician, chasing and catching the non-venomous reptile and checking it for mites. Far from frightening viewers, Renata hopes the video will demystify snakes and underscore their beauty and ecological importance.    

This is the last of my monthly summer updates. I’ll be resuming my regular Weekly Updates on Aug. 24, so keep sending me your good news and letting me know what you are doing! Submit your items here.