Weekly Update: Snow Day, New Director of Duke University Energy Initiative, Alum Joins N.C. Utilities Commission and more....

January 18, 2018
nicholas school snow snowman 2018 students

Who knew? Nine inches of snow! Guillermo Ortuño Crespo (from left), Meredith Whitten and Colyer Woolston got busy and built a Nic School snowperson in the Environment Hall orchard. Photo by Lily Huffman.

Hi Everyone,

If you’re snowed in, like I am, and are looking for suggestions of material to read while you sip your hot chocolate, let me offer a couple.

The Provost convened a retreat with the deans of Duke’s 10 schools on Tuesday, fortunately before the storm hit. One item on the agenda was discussion of a 2017 book by former Duke Law School professor Erwin Chemerinsky, Free Speech on Campus. Prof. Chemerinsky and his coauthor make the case that universities can provide inclusive and supportive learning environments without restricting the free expression of ideas.

Although they don’t refer to any environmental examples, their arguments are relevant to discussions that occur in our classrooms and our hallways, as environmental issues are often controversial, with links to policy, politics and social justice.

It’s essential, in my view, for the Nicholas School to be a place where vibrant but respectful debates over competing viewpoints on environmental issues occur, so we don’t hear only one side of an issue.

Free speech on campus is the theme of this year’s Provost’s Forum, “Testing the University: Speech, Freedom, and Civility on College Campuses,” on March 1. I encourage you to participate in the forum, which has an outstanding lineup of speakers.

If you’re looking for reading material directly related to the environment, peruse the 2017 Sustainability Strategic Plan Progress Report from Duke’s Office of Sustainability. The report was released on Nov. 30 but may have gone unnoticed due to so much else happening at semester’s end.

It offers updates on Duke’s carbon neutrality goal and Duke’s sustainability efforts in infrastructure and operations. Some highlights: Duke has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent from its 2007 baseline and has achieved a 40 percent reduction in potable water per gross square foot since 2006.

The report also describes new Duke educational initiatives related to the environment, including the newly approved undergraduate experiential certificate in Sustainability Engagement, which has a heavy footprint in NSOE. The faculty, staff, students, and alums of our school engage in multiple ways with the Office of Sustainability and have helped Duke define its environmental goals and make progress toward achieving them. To say we can take some credit for Duke’s progress on sustainability isn’t idle boasting.

And for reading material directly related to our school, read on below.

Stay safe and warm!


  1. Please join me in congratulating Brian Murray on his new appointment as director of the Duke University Energy Initiative. This is great news for everyone at Duke involved in energy research or teaching. Brian has served as the initiative’s interim director since January 2016, in addition to serving as research professor of environmental economics at the Nic School and director of the Environmental Economics Program at the Nicholas Institute. You can read more about Brian and his new appointment here.
  2. Also on the energy front, attorney Charlotte Mitchell MEM’05 was confirmed by the N.C. General Assembly to the N.C. Utilities Commission last week. Charlotte, who has her own practice specializing in energy law in Raleigh, was nominated by Gov. Roy Cooper in May.
  3. Researchers from the Nicholas School will lead 12 newly announced Bass Connections interdisciplinary research projects for the 2018-19 academic year. Sixteen core Nicholas School faculty members, three postdoctoral associates and one visiting fellow will lead projects on topics including energy economics, the Endangered Species Act, global health, environmental justice, marine conservation, water quality and tropical ecology. Check out our story for more info, including a list of the new projects.
  4. A study by Bill Schlesinger, Emily Klein and Avner Vengosh has found that human emissions of the trace metal vanadium have spiked in Earth’s atmosphere since the start of the 21st century. Although health risks are not well documented, evidence suggests that breathing vanadium-rich aerosols can impair respiratory functions and exacerbate conditions such as asthma and COPD. You can read the full paper here.
  5. Charlotte Clark has received a one-year, $200,000 grant from the Pisces Foundation to produce and apply rigorous program evaluation techniques in the field of environmental education. Her team, which also includes research scientist Liz DeMattia and associate in research Noelle Wyman Roth, will work with national experts in environmental education evaluation to develop and disseminate a national library of shared evaluation measures and metrics.
  6. Michael Pentony MEM’96 has been named the new Regional Administrator for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office in Gloucester, Mass. In his new post, he’ll be responsible for overseeing the office’s management of approximately 100,000 square miles of the Northwest Atlantic, the large marine ecosystem from Maine to Cape Hatteras. You can read more about Michael’s new job here.
  7. A drone-enabled population survey – the first ever on sea turtles – led by PhD student Seth Sykora-Bodie shows that larger-than-anticipated numbers of turtles aggregate in waters off Costa Rica’s Ostional National Wildlife Refuge during mass nesting events there. Data collected through the use of drones equipped with near-infrared cameras suggest turtle densities in these waters may reach up to 2,086 animals per square kilometer during peak season. The study underscores the importance of the Ostional habitat; it also confirms that drones are a reliable tool for surveying sea turtle abundance – even when those turtles are still at sea. Dave Johnston and PhD student Everette Newton co-authored the study.
  8. MEM/MF student Alex O'Neill has been elected a student representative to the Society for Economic Botany. As a representative, Alex will contribute editorial content to the society’s peer-reviewed journal. He hopes to use the international platform to promote research of non-timber forest products in South and Central Asia. Congrats, Alex!
  9. The Duke Energy Initiative has expanded its university-wide Energy Research Seed Fund program. Any Duke researcher can apply for seed grants worth up to $45,000. Those with previously funded projects can apply for stage-two grants (up to $35,000) and proposal development grants (up to $25,000) to support interdisciplinary, collaborative energy research. The deadline to apply is Feb. 2. You can learn more here.
  10. The Energy Initiative also is accepting applications for its inaugural cohort of Energy Data Analytics PhD Student Fellows. The program, which is open to doctoral students in all disciplines, aims to train next-generation scholars with the data analysis skills needed to help advance the development of accessible, affordable, reliable and clean energy systems. Benefits of membership include increased access to funding and research resources.

Keep me up to date on what you are doing. Submit your items here.