Trailblazing environmental sciences major celebrates milestone
In 1988, professors in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences began to create a new major that would explore the many environmental issues facing the world.
But unlike other majors that focused on policy or politics or social issues, this was to be a course of study that looked at the science behind environmental problems such as the chemistry behind soil contamination, the physics of chemical fate, and the microbiology of pollutants in water.
When the major was officially created in the 1992-93 academic year, it not only became one of the first environmental science majors ever offered at an American university, it also helped spawn a new generation of environmental scientists tackling some of the most pressing issues on the planet.
Now, as the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences celebrates the 20th anniversary of the environmental science major, it is not only looking back on the many accomplishments of its graduates and faculty, it is preparing its current students for careers in an array of fields dealing with emerging environmental issues concerning the land, water, and air.
“When we created this major two decades ago, there was an increasing need for people who had a solid scientific background in environmental fields,” said Dave Parrish, a professor emeritus who helped start the major. “These are skills that are needed now more than ever.”
Numbers, both in the university and in the job market, reiterate that fact.
Figures from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that the employment of environmental scientist and specialists is expected to increase by 28 percent between 2008 and 2018, a much faster growth rate than the average for all occupations.
The number of students enrolled in the major has grown from a handful of students in 1992 to 150 today.
“We have continued to grow because of the premium we place on the science behind human-caused impacts to our planet,” said Tom Thompson, head of the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences. “This is a major for students who are passionate about science and realize the value of such an education.”
From the coalfields of Virginia to the hills of Haiti’s Central Plateau, faculty are researching and teaching how to reclaim damaged land for agricultural, urban, and wildland purposes. Others are examining the sources and spread of water-borne pollutants and the best ways to mitigate damage to water bodies. And some are exploring the impact of climate change on crops that are going to become more stressed at a time when more food is needed to feed a growing population.
“There isn’t a subject in the arena of environmental science that we aren’t involved with today,” Thompson said. “We are preparing students for some of the most pressing problems out there.”
Students like Kathryn Gaasch of Ellicott City, Md., got into the major because they have an equal interest in science and the environment.
“I've always had a passion for the environment and I felt that this was the best way for me to contribute to the preservation of the health and integrity of the planet,” said Gaasch, a senior.
Jasmine Poindexter of Richmond, Va., who wants to go into conservation biology, said this is the best major because so many real-world decisions are based on research.
“Environmental science provides the framework and understanding that policymakers seek answers to,” said Poindexter, a junior. “Many laws and policies are developed because of the answers that science provides us with.”
Marshall Yacoe of Oakton, Va., said the major is already paying off in terms of internships he has landed.
“The best part about environmental science is that I have been able to effectively apply the concepts learned in the classroom,” said Yacoe, a junior. He used what he learned in his coursework during a recent internship with the British Embassy.
For Jason Gildea, who got a bachelor’s degree in environmental science in 1998 and a master’s degree in environmental science and engineering in 2000, this major was the only way to go.
“Virginia Tech offered the perfect environmental science program that combined a strong science foundation along with an environmental and conservation focus,” said Gildea. “I felt that it was truly preparing students for a job that focused on technical solutions to environmental problems.”
Though the classes were challenging, Gildea said they helped build the foundation for his career.
After graduation, he spent eight years at a private environmental consulting firm and then went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of this fellow graduates work for environmental consulting firms, private companies, or regulatory agencies.
“I feel like I am making a difference in the long-term health of our nation's rivers and lakes,” said Gildea, who now lives in Montana and oversees a number of clean water programs.
When Greg Neate started looking for a job, his environmental science degree gave him a leg up on his competitors.
“I can't stress enough how happy I am that the environmental science degree at Virginia Tech consists of hard math and science along with advanced courses in calculus and chemistry,” said Neate, a 2001 graduate.
“Employers know Virginia Tech has a rigorous program and these are the people who they want to help them solve the big problems we are facing today,” said Neate, who is now in charge of hazardous waste compliance at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C.
“It’s been a great 20 years of science and exploration,” said Thompson. “I can’t wait to see what the next 20 bring us as we prepare a new batch of students for the unknown horizons and challenges that await them.”