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Hellmann named leader in environmental science

Kristen Durbin | Friday, April 1, 2011

Notre Dame added another achievement to its sustainability list when Jessica Hellmann, professor of biological sciences, was named a 2011 Leopold Leadership Fellow last month.

Based out of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program recognizes twenty prominent environmental scientists as fellows each year with the support of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Hellmann, who was instrumental in the creation of the University’s new Environmental Change Initiative (ECI), was informed of her recognition as a fellow in December after applying for the program early last year. She said the Leopold fellowship will help the non-scientific community understand her research.

“In my PhD studies and time as a professor, I learned how to collect data, teach, write scientific papers and mentor students, but no one taught me how to talk to a member of Congress,” she said. “This program is a neat opportunity to get specialized training that I wouldn’t normally get as a scientist.”

The fellows attend two weeklong intensive training sessions that aim to improve their leadership and communication skills by participating in mock Congressional hearings, speaking with actual non-governmental organizations and policymakers and interacting with the media, Hellmann said.

“The program is much more than an award, it’s a training program,” Hellmann said. “Once you’re identified as a leader who is working on leading research, you need help articulating and explaining your work to the public and to policymakers.

“There’s a large gap between the public understanding of science and what science is figuring out,” she said. “We need the public to appreciate science, but scientists also need to reach out to them to explain what we do because it can be useful in creating policy changes.”

Hellmann said her recognition further establishes Notre Dame as a both a prominent research university and a leader in environmental science and sustainability.

“One of our growing missions as an institution, especially in the College of Science, is to take science and make the work we do relevant to society,” she said.

Hellmann and her colleague, biological sciences professor David Lodge, are Notre Dame’s Leopold fellows, and they both have active roles in the newly minted ECI. One of the ECI’s primary goals is to translate science to the public in order to effect change in sustainability policies, Hellmann said.

“We want to influence the public to make better, science-informed decisions and to manage natural resources more intelligently and efficiently,” Hellmann said. “We’ll be able to use the information from this leadership program to look at sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

The new Sustainability minor, which will be offered to students beginning in fall 2011, arose from an ECI working group headed by Hellmann. She said her Leopold fellowship experience would affect her role in educating students about sustainability.

“Sustainability is all about finding the appropriate balance of resource use that defines the quality of life and allows us to preserve nature for future generations,” she said. “Some policies sound great scientifically, but it’s important to understand how those ideas could work socially as well.”

Hellmann said she hopes the program will help her publicize her research examining the impact of climate change on endangered and culturally and economically important species, especially butterflies, and how these species adapt to environmental changes.

“One of the cornerstones of my research is discovering adaptation strategies for species to deal with the negative effects of environmental changes,” Hellmann said. “We have to figure out what the effects of these changes are, where they are the strongest, which species will adapt well to change and which ones will have a hard time.”

Examining the effects of climate change and increased urbanization on specific ecosystems can allow scientists to develop methods for helping important species survive and slowing the movement of invasive species, Hellmann said. This field of research can have major implications for the future of the planet and the species that inhabit it.

“Environmental issues, including climate change, represent some of the biggest challenges the young adult generation will face because the world is changing in profound and rapid ways,” Hellmann said.

Hellmann will expand on her current research when she spends the 2011-2012 academic year on sabbatical at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study to work on a book about helping nature deal with climate change.