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Prof sees vibrant life for environmental studies

David H. Marks
David H. Marks
Photo / Donna Coveney

Professor David H. Marks, the first director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment (LFEE), is stepping down as co-director in July to pursue duties in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division and continue to work on projects at the LFEE, formed in 2001. He spoke recently with Teresa Hill, of LFEE, on his experiences and his vision for sustainability studies at MIT.

Q: What now supports sustainability studies at MIT?

A: With the evolution of the MIT Energy Initiative, energy studies are really taking off. We are now working to combine the less-energy-specific environmental projects with other activities to create a new, closely related organization for sustainability studies at MIT.

Q: Can you give us some background on efforts to establish a focus on cross- disciplinary environmental studies at the Institute level?

A: Environmental studies have been really coming together since the mid-1990s. The MIT Environmental Council was formed in the early 1990s and has met monthly since then.

The Institute brought in about $5 million over eight years from the Kann Rasmussen Foundation, which was used to support the Chlorine Study, the Energy Futures project, and the group that initiated the Alliance for Global Sustainability. In 1997, a grant from Ford made it possible to set up the Center for Environmental Initiatives.

Q: Does support for research also stimulate educational initiatives?

A: Through the initial Program in Environmental Engineering Education and Research, begun in the early 1990s, we worked hard to bring environmental awareness into the education of not only future environmental professionals but also all MIT students. Environmental literacy is important in every field. Also in 1997, the Martin Family Foundation established a doctoral fellowship program that supports around 25 one-semester fellowships. Between 1997 and 2006, the Wallenberg Foundation brought a wonderful group of Swedish postdocs to LFEE, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Q: What has been the level of investment in these activities?

A: Between 1992 and the present, we've raised $60 to $70 million in support of this work, all from private, industrial and foundation sources. With those funds we've supported faculty and student research, workshops and larger-scale meetings, communications--the entire array of activities required for a vibrant academic -sector.

Q: Is interdisciplinary study of large-scale systems, such as the environment, a tough sell in an atmosphere emphasizing highly specialized and focused research?

A: The objective of interdisciplinary studies is to encourage the best possible research at the personal, disciplinary level of each investigator while fitting that work into the context of wider concerns that will be, of necessity, interdisciplinary. Not an easy trick, but I think we've done it successfully, for example, in our studies of air quality issues in Mexico City; electricity futures for Shandong Province, China; sustainable building designs for China; and wells-to-wheels analyses of alternative vehicle technologies and fuels.

Q: What's your vision for sustainability research and education at MIT?

A: MIT's new focus on energy has given legitimacy to the idea of sustainable systems. Twenty years from now I expect to see, first, a very high level of environmental literacy among MIT graduates as they go forth to work in the world's industries, governments and universities. Second, MIT will be producing a much larger core of professionals in areas directly bearing on sustainability--now it's about 5 percent of our graduates. Third, and following from the first two, the products of MIT research and education will exert a much greater influence on sustainability-related national and international policy and in the training of future generations.

Right now, Professor Maria Zuber, head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, is chairing a committee thinking about a sustainability presence at MIT that will form a necessary complement to the MIT Energy Initiative. The group is exploring institutional options that map best onto MIT's strengths and objectives. We're doing terrific things here--people need to know.

A longer version of this article appeared in the LFEE newsletter, Energy and Environment.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 6, 2007 (download PDF).

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