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The World as a Whole
The new Institute for Biospheric Studies is drawing on a wide range of academic departments in an interdisciplinary campaign to understand the natural environment. Call it “crossing party lines.”

Last year, wildlife researcher and writer George Schaller paid a visit to Yale to talk to Elisabeth Vrba, an evolutionary biologist and geologist. Schaller, who is well known throughout the world for his studies and books on lions, pandas, mountain gorillas, and Himalayan wildlife, had come to New Haven to ask Vrba’s advice on the best way to preserve the Chiru (Panthalops hodgsoni), an endangered species of antelope that ekes out a living on the high, snowy plains of Tibet.

The visitor’s timing couldn’t have been better. The Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS), an ambitious interdisciplinary effort launched in 1991 to investigate and help preserve the Earth’s biosphere, had just named Vrba director of ECOSAVE, or the Center for the Study of the Ecology and Systematics of Animals on the Verge of Extinction. “We’re in the business of networking,” she explains, “and we’re well set up to make a total onslaught on the biology of endangered species.”

In short order, Vrba had assembled a team of researchers from Yale and the American Museum of Natural History to use techniques as disparate as observations of Chiru behavior, studies of the molecular biology of the animal’s genes, and investigations of the antelope’s bone characteristics (using material brought back from Tibet by Schaller, as well as specimens in the Peabody Museum of Natural History) to help craft a conservation plan. “This world has never needed science as much, but we also have to think of practical approaches,” notes Vrba. “So I want ecosave to be at the intersection of intellectual excitement and conservation consciousness.”

Occupying that piece of academic turf where research and practicality meet, is what YIBS’s seven centers are designed to do. (Along with ECOSAVE, there are centers for the study of computational ecology, global change, Earth observation, molecular ecology and systematics, biological transformation, and human ecology, environment, and infectious disease.) According to biologist and geologist Leo Buss, the institute’s director, “We envision a new kind of environmental science-and scientist. So we’re creating an institutional structure within the University that allows individuals with strong multidisciplinary bents to pursue their work in the most efficient way. We’re also attempting to create academic programs and an actual place where students will have access to a multidisciplinary education that nevertheless retains a disciplinary rigor.”

YIBS, which was established with a $20-million gift from environmentalist and businessman Ed Bass '68, plans to accomplish this reformation with new approaches to environmentally oriented research, along with new courses and facilities. (Bass is best known for a similarly named but otherwise unrelated project, Biosphere 2, a controversial $150-million replica of the Earth’s ecosystem in which eight “biospherians” lived for two years.) One quarter of the Bass gift has already been used to pay for extensive renovations to the Sachem Street wing of the Osborn Memorial Laboratories, and efforts are currently underway by the YIBS advisory board to meet a $10-million “challenge” issued by the donor, as well as to raise an additional $10 million for a yibs endowment. A portion of the money is earmarked for the creation of an Environmental Science Center that will occupy the courtyard of the Bingham Laboratory and offer better protection of-and easier access to-the vast collections of the Peabody Museum of Natural History ($2 million of the Bass gift has been set aside to endow the Peabody’s directorship). Bingham itself will be upgraded to provide better teaching and research facilities. There is also $7 million budgeted to create positions for seven new junior faculty members who will be associated with the institute (the first, physical oceanographer Philip Bogden, has recently been hired). Finally, plans call for an endowment of $6 million to provide YIBS and its centers with operating funds and seed money for ongoing and future projects.

“We’re excited about Yale’s vision,” says Michael Novachek, dean of sciences at the American Museum of Natural History. “It represents a tremendous opportunity. Many countries, including our own, are crying out for people with this kind of multidisciplinary expertise.”

To create the desired intellectual sweep, YIBS draws on a wide variety of talents in such areas as biology, geology, geophysics, astronomy, anthropology, epidemiology and public health, forestry, and international studies. “I always thought the environment, in its broadest sense, would be a good organizing principle for a university,” notes John Gordon, the Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who has been closely involved in the program’s development.

The Center for Human Ecology, Environment, and Infectious Disease, where much of his research time is spent these days, illustrates Gordon’s idea. “The strength of the 'center' approach is that each one is problem-oriented-they’re interdisciplinary by definition,” he says, explaining that his center, which last May received a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, brought a team of experts together to study the consequences of deforestation in Brazil.

The problem has many dimensions, not of all which are scientific. There is, of course, the necessity to understand and document the ecological damage that results when forests are cleared to provide farmland for needy settlers. Then, there is the public health aspect, as people move into areas rife with endemic diseases to which they have no resistance and create conditions where illnesses like malaria can flourish. But, says Gordon, there is also the question of why the human migration occurred in the first place; providing an answer involves enlisting experts in international studies who can analyze Brazilian land-use policies and come up with better ways of doing business. “If we can learn how to do sustainable management, we might be able to alleviate deforestation pressure in Brazil,” says Gordon.

Clearly, the strength of the centers is their ability to build bridges between disciplines and allow researchers to cross “party lines.” Each endeavor, chosen from among dozens of proposals weighed last year by the ten members of the YIBS faculty council, consolidates the University’s existing research strengths. For example, the Center for Molecular Ecology and Systematics draws on Yale’s expertise in molecular biology, particularly the ability to study genetic diversity through techniques like dna fingerprinting. The Center for the Study of Global Change brings together numerous geologists and geophysicists who have used different concentrations of chemicals in rocks, air, ice, and water to assemble a record of changing environmental conditions throughout the planet’s 4.5 billion-year history.

And if some of the centers appear to be devoted to nontraditional topics, that, in an important sense, is precisely the point. Says Buss: “We’re looking at good bets for the future, areas that will be defining the conceptual agendas for decades to come. We’re not worried about whether Yale will be well represented in the status quo.”

Of the seven, the Center for Computational Ecology, which is exploring an emerging discipline called “artificial life,” has the most exotic purview. Its director is biologist Gunter Wagner, who, like Buss, is both a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and a visionary. Wagner, along with colleagues such as Buss, computer scientist Eric Mjolsness, and electrical engineer J. Rimas Vaisnys, is trying to reduce the processes that govern the workings of various parts of the natural world to a series of equations that, inside a powerful computer, can provide a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.

The advantage artificial creation has over its messier, living counterpart is that the artificial one can be manipulated in ways that would be impossible-and, in all likelihood, unethical-with organisms and ecosystems. As a reality check, the computer results are compared with those generated by experiments conducted in the natural world.

If they agree, computational ecologists can be confident of their simulations, which then gain predictive power, something sorely lacking-and desperately needed-in today’s environmental science.

“Management,” says Gordon, who is also working with the center, “boils down to prediction and control, and the only way you can get good predictions is with good models. That’s what the center will provide.”

Such work, Wagner explains, may be useful for problems well outside the immediate field. “One fundamental question is how you get self-sustaining organizations,” he says, noting that he and his colleagues are having some success generating artificial systems that maintain themselves. This mathematical model, then, is “a strong metaphor for what an organism or an ecosystem is-and what the economy could be.”

Economics figures more directly in the research of the Center for Biological Transformation, which has two goals: understanding the fundamental nature of genetic mutation, and using that knowledge to craft bacteria capable of tackling toxic pollutants. “The most remarkable feature of our biosphere is its constancy,” says center director L. Nicholas Ornston, a professor of biology, “and microorganisms are important contributors. We want to understand how bacteria behave in the wild, how they adapt, and how nature brought the right genes together and fine-tuned them to help maintain this essential constancy.”

Ornston and his colleague, Margaret Riley, an assistant professor of biology, are surveying the microbial world in an effort to find bacteria with novel talents, such as the ability to detoxify difficult-to-dispose-of chemicals like benzene, toluene, and other highly poisonous industrial petrochemicals. “We don’t have to teach these microorganisms anything-they already know how to do it,” notes Riley. “Our job is to determine the genetic control of the mechanisms that give bacteria their skills.”

But good genes are not necessarily enough, the researchers have discovered. It is all well and good to be able to chew on benzene, but if the microbe can’t compete against others in the natural world, or if it is difficult to rear in a laboratory or factory, the bacterium, however talented, will be useless in the rough-and-tumble fight against pollution. Its genetic skills, however, transferred to a hardier microorganism, might be just what the environment and industry need.

Many Yale researchers need the kind of data that the Center for Earth Observation is being set up to supply, says its director, Ron Smith, a climatologist who heads the geology and geophysics department. Not long after Sputnik entered orbit in 1957, satellites began gathering increasingly detailed pictures of our planet. These images, once of interest primarily to spies, have become a valuable record that researchers in a variety of disciplines are now using to document patterns of global change and the distribution of the planet’s natural resources.

“Satellite imagery gives you the big picture,” says Smith, as he pulls up two Landsat views of Connecticut-one taken in summer, the other in winter-and points out the color differences between them that are the key to interpreting what appears on the computer screen.

At present, says Smith, his center is involved in four pilot projects. The climatologist works with weather satellite images to study cloud and wind patterns around Hawaii. An archaeological investigation uses satellite imagery to chronicle changes in the vegetation of Syria; a public health project involves documenting the connection between deforestation in Venezuela, changes in rodent distribution, and outbreaks of disease. In a fourth study, Landsat images are helping a researcher determine water-use patterns and land preservation requirements in New York State.

“The Center will help us pull together many different science activities and forge alliances among disciplines,” says Smith, adding that initially, its most important contribution may be the course, “Observing Earth from Space,” that it will sponsor this spring./p>

Eventually, all the centers will be developing courses and making contributions to undergraduate and graduate education, says Buss, whose institute also oversees undergraduate degree programs in organismal biology and studies in the environment. The end result, he predicts, will be students better trained to handle the inherent complexities of the environment. “The way we train people now is to stick, say, a bunch of geochemists in a closet for five years, and we’re surprised when they come out and are interested in nothing but geochemistry,” says Buss. “But in the new facility, while students will still be stuck in closets, they’ll be sharing them with, perhaps, a molecular evolutionist, a remote-sensing specialist, a geochemist, and a conservation biologist. So when they graduate, they’ll each have more than a passing knowledge of what motivates other disciplines, and the central solved and unsolved problems. Probably more important than anything else, each student will know first rate people in those fields.”

Students and professors will also have a better chance to know-and use-a matchless but underappreciated Yale resource: the Peabody. The three-story, 30,000-square-foot addition planned for the museum is designed to prevent what Alison Richard, the Peabody’s director, calls the “slow but steady slide toward disintegration” being experienced by many of the museum’s more than 11 million specimens that are currently housed under trying conditions of fluctuating temperature and humidity. In addition, the new building will provide better security, but its primary advantage, says Richard, is better access to the specimens.

“It’s a nightmare in there,” she explains, and as a result, the collections, which “exist to serve the intellectual mission of the University,” can’t do their job. “The tales these objects have to tell haven’t been fully explored, and as new techniques are developed, the collections will tell new stories. A museum is always a work-in-progress.”

The same could be said of YIBS, as it attempts to become a potent force for addressing-and redressing-environmental problems. “We’re hoping to achieve a kind of synergy,” concludes Richard. “We hope that the biospherics program will be more than the sum of its parts.”  the end


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