Wildfire expert Toddi Steelman, the first permanent executive director at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS), started her tenure as the Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment on July 1, 2018. Learn more about her here.
Q&A with Toddi Steelman
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself
A: I was born and raised in West Virginia in a small coal mining and timber town. I spent a lot of time outside hiking, paddling whitewater and biking.
Coming from a rural, natural resource-dependent community has given me a powerful perspective on many issues. Mining caused enormous environmental damage in our community and state, but it also provided a social identity and livelihood for my family and many others. Our ability to find approaches that integrate or balance social, economic and environmental interests sustainably is very personal for me.
Q: What do you study? Where have you worked?
A: As a policy scholar, my research has always been very problem-oriented and I have worked on a variety of issues—forest management and planning, water security, open space protection, climate change, and most recently wildfire response and management.
I try to work where the problems are and with the people who experience them, and this has taken me all over the United States as well as South Africa, Brazil and Canada.
Like many people, I want to make a difference and serve a larger purpose. We are only put on this planet for a short time and by virtue of our education and wealth, we have an obligation to figure out how we can help others. We create science and other forms of knowledge in universities, and I firmly believe we need to put that knowledge in service of society.
Q: You’re perhaps best known for your wildfire research. How did you get started in that?
A: Over the years some of my best ideas have come from listening to students, and this an example of that.
In 2001, when I was on the faculty at NC State, a professional master’s student walked into my office and asked if I did any wildfire research because that was what she wanted to work on. At that time, wildfire was not yet a major issue on the national or international environmental policy agenda. I told her I didn’t have any interest and she should go find someone else on faculty who did, because that would be a better fit.
But she was persistent and came back a week later and asked if I would reconsider. So, we sat down and started a discussion about how we could approach the topic from a perspective that would be novel enough to suit her master’s project needs and fit into my broad policy and scholarly interests—and here I am, all these years later, still working on wildfire.
Q: You were a doctoral student here in the early years of the school. How did that experience shape you and your career?
A: At the time, the Nicholas School was one of the few programs that offered an interdisciplinary focus, and that was where my passion was. My advisor, Bob Healy, gave me a lot of leeway to pursue my interests and I thought that was fantastic. I was keen to have disciplinary depth that I could marry with interdisciplinary breadth to integrate knowledge from diverse fields.
I roamed broadly across Duke and took courses in the Sanford Institute, the Department of Political Science and the Department of Economics, as well as the Nicholas School. That broad but focused approach has led to a career of amazing collaborations and the chance to explore some of the most pressing problems today with wonderful colleagues across multiple disciplines.
I think these qualities remain true today. Our school provides students the freedom, the academic resources, and the access to faculty and staff expertise they need to pursue their interests. That’s critical for training future environmental leaders.
Q: Do you have any special memories from your time here?
A: My friends and I would take weekend trips down to the Marine Lab. Beaufort is terrific and the folks at the Marine Lab have created a special community that was nice to experience. Duke Forest also holds a special place in my memory. I lived in a house in the forest for two years and walked along New Hope Creek every day with my dog, Coby.
Q: How does it feel to be the first Nicholas School alumnus selected to serve as dean?
A: It feels like a homecoming and makes me proud to be an ongoing part of the Nicholas School’s tradition. I was among the first generation to graduate from the school. My classmates, many of whom have remained close friends, have gone on to do amazing work shaping the environmental trajectory of our nation and planet. When I consider that we now have more than 5,000 alumni out in the world, all doing important work, the prospect of leading a school with such a huge potential for impact is thrilling.
Q: If you were to tell people one thing about your leadership style, what would it be?
A: I am highly collaborative and a good listener, but am not afraid to make a decision. Also, I can be bribed with chocolate.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the key challenges the school faces today?
A: When I was a student, we were one of only a few graduate environmental programs in the United States. Now there’s much more competition, so we have to think harder about who we are, what we offer and what makes us special. The Marine Lab and Duke Forest are integral to our identity and we need to get students out in the forest and onto the water to experience these resources firsthand.
Embracing complexity in our research and teaching is also paramount. Complexity is the combination of uncertainty and conflicting value demands, and it’s a defining feature of many environmental issues.
At a time when we’re so deeply divided as a society and issues seem to grow more contentious daily, we can no longer treat environmental issues as solely scientific or technical problems. We have to wade into the complex values choices that are at the heart of policy decisions. Science will always be a central and essential input into the decision-making process, but policy decisions require choices. And choices reflect values.
We need to remain on the forefront of research and scholarship, while at the same time becoming much more skilled in engaging in the conversations that are at the heart of the values divide.
Q: Give us three good reasons why we should be optimistic about the future of our planet.
A: We are at a curious place in modern history. There is a lot to worry about, but at the same time, we are seeing a reinvigoration of many institutions that are critical to democracy—journalism, activism, people running for office, and people educating themselves about what it means to be a citizen. I find this very heartening.
Also, while people may despair at the state of national or federal leadership, we are seeing an exciting new generation of leaders emerge at the local and state level. They are our future. Our school is poised to shape this next generation to be effective environmental leaders who contribute to a country and planet of which we can all be proud.
Last but not least, Generation Z and Millennials have a greater environmental ethic and literacy than the generations before them. My daughter and her friends, at age 15, know more about climate change than I did as an undergraduate. My sincerest hope is that we can attract the best, most capable and passionate students from across the globe to work with and learn from as we all strive for a more sustainable way of life.