Transdisciplinarity in a Dynamic Research Community

The critical advances in scientific knowledge will take place at the boundaries of disciplines. As we move from disciplinary to interdisciplinary to transdisciplinary sciences, CELS will be well prepared infrastructurally to meet the needs of science’s future. Bringing scientists from different disciplines together in a flexible research environment will promote synergies and opportunities that could otherwise have been missed. Students working in these labs will benefit from the lively nature of blending disciplines and emerge as scientists with strong depth in the life sciences (molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmaceutical chemistry, etc.) and complementary knowledge and skills in contiguous disciplines (information technology, physics, etc.). These are the scientists who will lead tomorrow, in both academia and industry.

Industry and Government Relationships

CSAM has existing relationships with numerous industries that have a science basis. These include many pharmaceutical companies and environmental consultancies. In addition various members of CSAM sit on important New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection science and environment advisory standing committees and commissions including the Water Quality and Quantity, Ecological Processes, and Climate and Atmospheric Sciences committees, and the Passaic River Basin Flood Commission.

Graduate Research Expansion

As our research programs have grown, so too have our relevant programs for student development. The PhD in Environmental Management is unique in the region and has quickly grown to over 25 students. These students are among the most productive on campus and publish on a regular basis (in fact, publications are required to obtain their degree). A recently installed MS in Pharmaceutical Biochemistry has proven popular among some of our most competitive students. The MS in Molecular Biology is among our largest graduate programs and produces a regular flow of students heading into roles as life science research scientists.

Transdisciplinarity in Environmental Research

Knowledge through research will only be enhanced in studying environment and society, the NRC Board on Sustainable Development suggests, if the research approach becomes broadly based (as opposed to highly focused), problem driven (instead of discipline specific), and localized (not only global).

This is the domain of sustainability science: an interconnected community of academic and professional fields with their vast body of knowledge and methodologies. Within these connected spaces, researchers and broad constituencies engage in formulating questions, analyzing data, testing strategies, and implementing solutions. Their interest is to reveal “the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society,” and to manage if not expand society’s capacity to sustain such interactions. If we are not looking at the junctions between disciplines then we run the threat of ignoring or overlooking the synergistic power of this emerging domain—transdisciplinarity.

A Dynamic Research Community

The environmental laboratories will be built on this concept, in terms of both research content and physical design. Facilities for environmental research will emphasize shared and open spaces, communal equipment usage, and mutable research clusters.

With these new labs, the University will change how science research is conducted. The extension here is to catalyze true research collaborations between and among faculty members and graduate students around significant research questions—collaborations to be cultivated in a physical setting that transcends attributes like stagnant, rigid, opaque, closed, or discrete. This, in essence, is the making of a dynamic research community and in fact is a model discovered some years back by industries with an R&D focus.

Environmental Research Strategy

The choice of environmental research as a strategic priority within CSAM and the focus for environmental laboratories has been informed by the growing tension between New Jersey’s urban and natural ecosystems and the pressing need for research to inform policy, as well as the University’s ambitious determination to make “the creation and application of new knowledge” within environmental management and sustainability sciences one of its hallmark qualities.

New Jersey is a remarkable “laboratory” in and of itself in terms of environmental study opportunities. Within our state boundaries we find pristine forests, streams, and upland meadows, estuaries and coastal waters that retain high biodiversity but face occasional “dead zones” of low oxygen, some of the most highly impacted rivers and bays, and the most densely populated urban regions in the country. The environmental research strategy that will form the backbone of our CELS laboratories is focused on environmental impact and global sustainability. With research topics ranging from the heavy metals found in the sediments of Newark Bay and the Passaic River to the melting of the Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica, CELS will house scientists with expertise and deep research programs to help answer some of the most critical environmental issues facing our planet today.

Institutional Context

Regional environmental needs and the emergence of sustainability science as a strong transdisciplinary endeavor frame the research agenda within CSAM. With full University backing, the College has shown unreserved dedication to the highest quality in research. Environmental laboratories represent the next phase in the strategic expansion of graduate programs and research in the sciences.

Graduate Research Expansion

The Department of Earth and Environmental Studies six years ago launched the University’s first doctoral program in the sciences. One of only a handful in the nation, this research-intensive, applied, truly transdisciplinary PhD in Environmental Management has doubled in size since launch (28 doctoral students, 14 fully funded) and will serve 50 at a time at full capacity. Planned PhD programs in computational science, molecular ecology, and applied mathematics will strengthen research in sustainability science and are complemented by new research-based Master’s programs, the five-year BS/MS, and researchoriented certificate programs across environmental sciences (Geosciences, Geographic Information Science, Coastal Ecology, Environmental Forensics, and Molecular Biology). Since 1999, the number of CSAM graduate students rose by 43 percent to 384.