Weekly Update: Orientation, Palm Oil Production, Awards and more...

August 24, 2016

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

hi everyone

I’m in New York for most of this week, but I enjoyed coming back to Durham on Monday to welcome our incoming MEM/MF residential and Duke Environmental Leadership students. It was great to see the hallways of Environment Hall and the LSRC full again with students working and talking.

We have much to do this fall as we continue to shape the school’s strategic plan, and I look forward to working with you all on that and other initiatives.

This is my first Weekly Update as interim dean, and as you can see below, the summer has been a productive one. There is much news including an honor for Susan Lozier, important new studies by Brian Silliman, Lincoln Pratson, Marty Smith, Stuart Pimm, and their students, and a special project by PhD student Danielle Purifoy, so read on.

See you soon,


  1. As coastal marshes worldwide feel the heat of climate change, a new study co-authored by Brian Silliman reveals that a simple and previously overlooked interaction between marsh grass and mussels may help these vital ecosystems bounce back from extreme climatic events such as drought. The study, funded by NSF, finds that when mussels pile up in mounds around marsh grass stems, they improve water storage near plant roots and reduce salinity, allowing marshes to recover from drought in less than a decade. Without the mussels’ help, recovery can take more than a century. Learn more here.
  2. MEM students Brianna Elliott, Ashley Gordon, Emily Hall and Kelli Iddings are among 75 students nationwide selected to take part in the Department of State’s “Our Ocean, One Future: Leadership Summit” on Sept. 15-16 in Washington, D.C. , where they’ll work with high-level ocean leaders to explore new approaches to some of the most pressing issues in marine management today, including climate change, sustainable fisheries and marine pollution. We’re proud – and lucky – to have such great students represent the Nic School at this important event.
  3. PhD student Danielle Purifoy has begun an innovative new project to document the environmental legacy of racism in black communities across the South. Working with artist Torkwase Dyson, she is using art and oral history to document the obstacles the communities face in their battle for clean water and wastewater sanitation and other environmental services essential to human health and well-being. Danielle and Torkwase will share the art they create and oral histories they collect in an exhibition at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies in March. 
  4. Two studies by Stuart Pimm and PhD students Binbin Li and Varsha Vijay shed new light on how deforestation from palm oil production threatens species on four continents. The first study, led by Stuart and Varsha, finds that the largest areas of vulnerable forest are in Africa and South America, where more than 30 percent of forests within land suitable for oil palm plantations remain unprotected. The second study, led by Stuart and Binbin, reveals that in Southeast Asia alone, 42 percent of species endemic to the region’s forests face a much higher risk of extinction from habitat loss than once thought.
  5. Susan Lozier has been selected for a 2016 Ambassador Award from the American Geophysical Union. She’s being honored for her leadership in creating a mentoring program for women in physical oceanography, a field traditionally dominated by men, and for leading the $32 million OSNAP international research initiative, which seeks to advance scientists’ understanding of the ocean’s meridional overturning circulation. 
  6. New research by Lincoln Pratson and PhD student Candise Henry finds that future climate warming will likely cause only minor cuts in efficiency and output at most U.S. coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants. The study, the first of its kind based on empirical data, rebuts modeling-based studies that suggest rising temperatures could cut plant efficiencies by up to 1.3 percent for each 1oC of warming. Lincoln and Candise’s new work suggests that any cuts will be a full order of magnitude smaller. Learn more here.
  7. PhD students Anna Birkenbach and David Kaczan brought home top honors from the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade (IIFET) conference in Scotland last month, winning the Best Student Paper Award for their study of the impacts catch shares have on sustainable fisheries management. Anna also recently won a two-year Marine Resource Economics Fellowship from NOAA and Sea Grant to study multi-species fishery management. 
  8. Four studies by Marty Smith are making a splash this month in marine economics. The first, co-led by PhD alum Sathya Gopalakrishnan, examines the economics of coastal erosion and adaptation to sea-level rise; the second, which won Best Paper at last month’s IIFET conference, presents a new approach to disease risk and market structure in salmon aquaculture. The third new study underscores the limitations of using trade interventions to manage environmental externalities in global aquaculture; and the fourth, conducted with Lori Bennear and MEM alum Sam Cunningham, finds that introducing market-based regulation in a fishery causes spillover into adjacent, less regulated fisheries, which can offset some of the gains of the policy change.
  9. PhD alum Tirtha Banerjee has won a prestigious Gandhi Medal for his contributions to science. Tirtha, who was one of Gaby Katul’s students, was selected for the honor in recognition of his influential studies on the role multiscale organized eddy motion – or turbulence – plays in governing biosphere-atmosphere interaction. Congrats, Tirtha! 
  10. Two Orientation Week reminders: The plasma screens in Environment Hall and LSRC now feature a People Finder function. Click on the People button on the bottom right and you can get directions to any Nic School faculty member, staff member or PhD student’s office. And don’t forget to include the #WeAreDukeEnvironment hashtag in your Orientation posts and photos so we can share them with all of our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook followers.

I'd like to hear from you, so keep me up-to-date on what you are doing. Submit your items here.