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Stanford scholars seek real-world solutions to environmental problems

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher selected Stanford in 1996 as the site for his major foreign policy address on the environment. The university's ecologists are stretching conventional limits of research and education with a growing number of interdisciplinary programs that draw on faculty from fields as diverse as biology, engineering, law, economics and medicine.

Stanford's environmental researchers are leaders in the basic science of how complex ecosystems function and the engineering that develops solutions for pressing pollution problems. They work closely with experts in public policy on the social and economic dilemmas posed by threats to the environment. Those dilemmas have been recognized by the Department of State as major foreign policy concerns of the United States, since the depletion of already scarce resources can serve as flashpoints for conflicts in many parts of the globe.

In a 1995 survey, the National Research Council listed Stanford at the top for its graduate ecological research programs. A sampling of some of Stanford's prominent environmental programs:

Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve

An outdoor laboratory spanning 1,200 acres, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve has been supporting research and education in the field sciences for more than 30 years. Jasper Ridge offers population biologists and ecologists from a number of institutions a unique opportunity to perform long-term research experiments within the confines of an environment protected from the impact of humans.

Interdisciplinary global change and conservation biology studies are main research interests at the preserve. A five-year, multi-institution study on natural responses to elevated carbon dioxide ­ Jasper Ridge's largest research program ­ has just been completed.

Other ongoing research at the preserve includes the first systematic study of the impact of Argentine ants, an invasive species worldwide, on local flora and fauna.
Representative investigators: Paul Ehrlich, Chris Field, Deborah Gordon, Harold Mooney
Contact: Philippe Cohen, scientific director: (415) 723-1589;

Center for Conservation Biology

Conserving and restoring biotic diversity around the world is the main mission of the Center for Conservation Biology, which was established in 1984 by ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich. Researchers at the center develop and implement solutions to protect the future of the earth's life support systems.

Scientific training programs in tropical countries such as Costa Rica and Madagascar aim to increase the effectiveness of conservation biologists in those areas. The Ehrlichs are leading a fight to combat proliferation of anti-science misinformation in the public media.

The center's research efforts include biology, policy and ecological economics. On a regional scale, center scientists helped develop a pioneering plan that enlisted conservationists, developers and local governments in Southern California to establish the first natural communities conservation plan. This plan avoids listing the California gnatcatcher as an endangered species by saving its habitat throughout the state's southern coastal scrub region.

On an international scale, center scientists recently have published the results of a global study that concluded that the earth's renewable fresh water supply is teetering dangerously close to its limit, with enormous implications for environmental stability, human health, and for pressures on human migrations.
Representative investigators: Carol Boggs, Gretchen Daily, Anne Ehrlich, Paul Ehrlich, Carlos Galindo-Leal, Claire Kremen, Alan Launer, Dennis Murphy
Contact: Carol Boggs, director: (415) 723-5923,

Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies

As the number of people inhabiting the earth escalates at an unprecedented pace, a multifaceted effort will be necessary to contend with the ensuing pressures on the environment and natural resources. The Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies was founded in 1986 to solicit such an interdisciplinary cooperation from experts in the natural sciences, mathematics, engineering, public policy, economics and medicine. Research at the institute addresses questions ranging from the future of family planning in nations around the world, to genetic patterns of human migration, to the impact of population pressures on food supplies.

For example, in just a few decades China will be brimming with up to a million single men each year who cannot find wives ­ a combined result of the country's one-child policy and a preference for male children. The institute has been working with Chinese officials to craft workable solutions to this problem; one major recommendation is to weaken this preference by elevating both the economic and educational status of women.

A recently established initiative at the institute is participation in the Human Genome Diversity Project, an international program seeking to document the genetic variation of the human species worldwide. Goals of the project range from helping to clarify the major human migrations to increased understanding of factors leading to disease in many of the world's populations.
Representative investigators: Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Carl Djerassi, Marcus Feldman, Henry Greely, Shripad Tuljapurkar.
Contact: Marcus Feldman, director: (415) 725-1867;

Global Environment Program, Institute for International Studies

The Global Environment Program forges new and non-traditional alliances between faculty from the disciplines of engineering, economics, biology, medicine and law in an ongoing effort to devise strategies to combat global environmental dilemmas. The main mission of the program is to find ways to manage divergent national interests which if left unchecked could do irreparable damage to the global environment.

Research programs range from studying the impact of herbicide usage on rice-growing in Asia to evaluating changes in land usage and biomass production in Mexico that could result from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Scholars also work on risk management for agricultural biotechnology, and the relationships between environmental quality and regional security.

Education remains a major focus of the institute. Selected undergraduates participate in the Interschool Honors Program in Environmental Science, Technology and Policy, an interdisciplinary program that brings together students from all majors for independent research on global environmental problems.
Representative investigators: Lawrence Goulder, David Holloway, Donald Kennedy, Rosamond Naylor, Stephen Schneider

Contact: Donald Kennedy: (415) 725-2745;, or Stephen Schneider (415) 725-9978, co-directors, Global Environment Forum; Walter Falcon, director, Institute for International Studies: (415) 725-1496;; or Rosamond Naylor, director of studies and the Honors Program: (415)

Program in Global Ecosystem Function

Led by ecologists at Stanford, the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the University of California, the Program in Global Ecosystem Function has played a major role in defining the emerging field of global ecology, using new technologies to study the integrated function of complete ecosystems, from the local to the global scale. They are training a new generation of global ecosystem scientists, working to identify principles that can be tested or modeled to understand and predict the behavior of ecosystems.

Research in global ecology aims to understand processes that cross national and regional boundaries, including the global cycles of carbon, oxygen, water and nitrogen on which life depends. Among the program's research projects are an international study of the impact of enhanced levels of carbon dioxide on how ecosystems function, and studies of Hawaiian ecosystems and South Pacific mangrove forests to document the importance of biodiversity in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Representative investigators: David Ackerly, Joseph Berry, Olle Björkman, Harold Mooney, Peter Vitousek, Chris Field (Carnegie Institute), Pamela Matson (UC-Berkeley)
Contact: Co-directors Harold Mooney (415) 723-1179,, and Peter Vitousek (415) 725-1866

Western Region Hazardous Substance Research Center

Some of the most persistent environmental problems today stem from groundwater contamination from solvents, petroleum products, pesticides and toxic metals. The Western Region Hazardous Substance Research Center, a consortium of Stanford and Oregon State universities, was established in 1989 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop new strategies to treat hazardous substances that threaten the environment within the western United States.

Bioremediation ­ using natural processes to degrade or potentially eliminate harmful chemicals ­ is a promising tactic being used by engineers and scientists at the center to attack pollutants once thought to be indestructible.

Representative investigators: Perry McCarty, Martin Reinhard
Contact: Perry McCarty, director: (415) 723-4131;

Energy Modeling Forum

The Energy Modeling Forum evaluates energy production and consumption of international, federal, state and local agencies as well as that of major corporations. Research at the forum aims to forecast important developments in the energy sector.

Representative investigators: Larry Goulder, Henry Rowen, Stephen Schneider, Jim Sweeney
Contact: John Weyant, director: (415) 723-0645;

Environmental Fluid Mechanics Laboratory

Research activities of the Environmental Fluid Mechanics Laboratory span the range from the clouds to the seas. One major focus of the laboratory is biological fluid mechanics ­ an ongoing project uses a flume to study the hydrodynamics of clam feeding.

A new research alliance is under way at the laboratory to study relationships between the air and the ocean, with sophisticated computer modeling methods that monitor global effects of atmospheric pollutants such as ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons.

Representative investigators: Mark Jacobson, Jeffrey Koseff, Robert Street
Contact: Stephen Monismith, director: (415) 723-4764;

Earth Systems Program (an undergraduate major)

The Earth Systems Program of the School of Earth Sciences is an interdisciplinary environmental science major. Students learn to tackle environmental problems with scientific solutions that are economically and politically viable.
Contact: Jonathan Roughgarden, director: (415) 723-3648;


By Alison F. Davis