Creating a collaborative environment

- June 16, 2006

Sustainability chair
Dalhousie is fostering sustainability through collaboration
When discussing our relationship with the environment in the 21st century, ÔsustainabilityÕ is a critical term to understand.  Broadly, itÕs about ensuring that the demands we place on the environment can be managed so future generations can make use of its resources as we have.

Sustainability is not just limited to the environmental sciences: it transcends being environmentally friendly to include social concerns, notes Carl Breckenridge, DalhousieÕs Vice-President Research. ÒWith such a broad concept, many departments here on campus have projects with a sustainability-centred approach or theme,” he says. ÒThe challenge is to find a way to bring them all together so that their important work can be linked with other projects and initiatives.”

A new academic chair at Dalhousie is up to that challenge.  Established in the Faculty of Science in 2005, the Elizabeth May Chair in Sustainability and Environment bears the name of noted environmental activist Elizabeth May, past director of the Sierra Club and a Dalhousie Law graduate (May herself is not involved with the work of the chair, but the university is honoured to have her name linked with this project). 

While we usually associate university chairs with the professors that occupy them, the chair has been making waves across campus even before a faculty member has been hired.  Combining an interdisciplinary vision with networking and public outreach-focused initiatives, the Office of the Elizabeth May Chair recognizes that we can best appreciate sustainability and its implications through collaboration.  While its primary focus is the links between environment and human health, the chair includes the concept of sustainability to broaden its focus beyond traditional environmental health programs.

ÒUnderstanding our environment and how it affects our daily lives requires an interdisciplinary approach,” says Keith Taylor, Dean of Science. ÒOnly by bringing researchers, thinkers and policy makers together can we break down the barriers that limit our understanding of environmental health.  ThatÕs why we see such exciting potential for the Elizabeth May Chair.”

The chairÕs most significant project to date, developing a Nova Scotia Sustainability and Environmental Health Network, got underway this past spring.  Over 20 Dalhousie researchers attended this first meeting, coming from all corners of the campus: mathematics and statistics, law, business, epidemiology, architecture and planning, sociology, biology, earth sciences and environmental programmes.

ÒOn first glance, youÕd wonder how projects in statistics have anything to do with those in biology, or those in architecture,” says Katja Stoessel, who serves as administrative coordinator for the chair.  ÒBut I think the attendees were surprised by how quickly they found common ground.  Learning about other projects on campus helps build relationships that can avoid duplication and encourage collaboration.”  As part of the chairÕs public outreach initiatives, this network will be expanded in the coming months to include other academic institutions, governments and business interests.

Stoessel and the Faculty of Science have other ambitious plans for the chair.  September will see the opening of the newly renovated and refurbished Elizabeth May Computer Lab on the second floor of the Department of Earth Sciences.  Also in the fall, the chair will host the 3rd Annual Environmental Research Symposium with a keynote speaker to discuss issues regarding environmental health and sustainability.  In June of next year, together with the Global Ecological Integrity Group, the Elizabeth May Chair will host the Ecological Integrity and Sustainable Society Conference.  And alongside all this, the search will begin for a sitting professor for the chair.

To learn more about the Elizabeth May Chair, visit its website at


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