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In praise of post-docs

  • About PLAID
    About PLAID  Chris Marcoux (left) discusses research with Mike Tierney, director of the College’s Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations.  by Joseph McClain
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William & Mary's interdisciplinary environmental program is expanding, thanks to a new post-doctoral fellowship program.

Post-doctoral researchers are not new to William and Mary, but the Mellon Foundation fellowship has introduced a "teacher-scholar" aspect to the school's Environmental Science and Policy Program.

Made possible by an $800,000 matching grant from Mellon, the program brings one environmental researcher to the school every year. Each researcher will spend two years at William & Mary polishing classroom teaching techniques under a faculty mentor, while also conducting research projects with undergraduate students.

The College’s first Mellon-supported post-doctoral fellow, Yuehan Lu, began her work at William & Mary in September 2008. The second, Chris Marcoux, began his fellowship in August 2009.

Yuehan Lu

Lu, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, has been working on a collaborative project involving Randy Chambers from William & Mary’s Keck Environmental Field Laboratory and Elizabeth Canuel and Jim Bauer of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).

“She is collecting water from each of the sites seasonally and we’re  looking at the composition of the sources of organic matter in the water as well as examining differences in the reactivity of the organic matter by doing incubation studies,” said Canuel, a professor at VIMS.

Lu used geographic information systems—or GIS—to map out watersheds of first-order streams (streams that do not have any other streams feeding into them) in the freshwater region of the York River. She and her co-collaborators identified streams in three categories: those that were dominated by agriculture, forested or urban lands.

“What she has done subsequently is to collect water from each of the sites kind of seasonally, and we’re basically looking at the composition of the sources of organic matter in the water as well as differences in how reactive that organic matter is by doing some incubation studies,” said Canuel.

Chambers explained that people have studied the total amount of dissolved organic carbon that flows into the Chesapeake Bay estuary from streams, but little more is known about what this matter consists of and how it affects the bay’s food web.

“What Yuehan is doing that is different is twofold,” said Chambers. “One, she is characterizing the types of organic carbon, and then she’s looking at it as a function of surrounding land use. So does the organic matter coming off of an agricultural field differ from what’s coming off of a forest? You would say, ‘Well, yeah, it has to be different.’ But what is it? No one knows.

“That’s important to us as estuarine scientists— to figure out what the connections are between these adjacent watersheds or upland environments and the health and quality of the bay,” he said.

What post-docs bring to the tableAs the post-doctoral program is both a research and teaching program, Lu has engaged undergraduates in her project, and she also has done classroom teaching. In the spring 2009 semester, she taught an upper-level undergraduate course in environmental chemistry, and in the spring 2010 semester, she will teach another class.

Chambers said that having new course offerings in environmental studies is very important because the faculty members who teach in that program are based primarily out of other departments and programs.

“Yuehan gets to be one of the first environmental faculty members to teach a course dedicated to the program,” Chambers said.

Additionally, during her first year at William & Mary, Lu helped a first-year graduate student conduct research on the west coast, and she mentored a high school student who participated in a five-week Governor’s School internship program during the summer.

Chris Marcoux

Chris Marcoux, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is working in the College’s Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations with its director, Mike Tierney and with Rob Hicks, associate professor of economics.

“My plans are to fully integrate him into the PLAID research project,” said Tierney, who is the Weingartner Associate Professor in William & Mary’s government department.

PLAID, which stands for Project-Level Aid, is a project that provides information on the flow of international aid through a comprehensive database which contains information on all of the projects committed by bilateral and multilateral aid donors since 1973. Marcoux is focusing his research on the distribution of international environmental aid.

“There’s a basic difference in preference between a lot of developing countries and the developed world,” he said. Developing countries are more interested in environmental projects with immediate and local impact, Marcoux explained, while developed countries tend to focus on projects that have broader and longer-term implications. Along with other PLAID collaborators, he is interested in which projects are supported by “brown aid”—those that are expected to yield local environmental benefits—versus “green aid,” or projects that will benefit the global environment.

“We’re trying to figure out why some countries are able to secure greater amounts of brown aid and why some only get green aid,” Marcoux said. “That’s a source of tension in sort of north/south environmental politics that the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) say that they’re giving X billion dollars a year, but it’s not necessarily going to the projects that are the highest priority for the developing world.”

Marcoux points out that his research not only has academic value, but it also has immediate policy implications.

“The ultimate goal of the research is to allow donor countries to give international aid more effectively—which should have some sort of beneficial, real-world consequence,” he said.

Marcoux’s fellowship comes at an exciting time for the institute and its PLAID researchers. The institute has partnered with the nonprofit organization Development Gateway, which maintains an online database of foreign aid projects.

“Originally we were thinking of their database—called AiDA—as a competitor to PLAID, but now that we’re partnering with them and creating a single database that combines the best elements of both, we don’t think of them as a competitor but as a partner,” he said. We think now that it will just improve the quality of the PLAID database.”

Researchers at the institute attended a data-vetting workshop in Washington, D.C., during which they unveiled a beta version of the PLAID database. After making improvements from what they learn during that release, the institute will roll out a second beta version of the PLAID database in Oxford, England, in March of 2010. Marcoux will be an active participant in both events, said Tierney.

But, like Lu, Marcoux’ fellowship is about both research and teaching. He actually began working during the summer of 2009, a few months prior to the start of his fellowship. During that time, he worked with 12 undergraduate student assistants and a master’s student in computer science on the database. He also worked on several papers to be presented during the September data-vetting workshop.

In the fall 2009 semester, Marcoux, who previously taught as at Virginia Tech for two years, is teaching a new class on the science and politics of the global environment.

“It’s a topic that a lot of people are interested in, but it’s not typically a course that’s offered,” Marcoux said. “In fact, if you do a search on the internet for syllabi, you’ll find that it’s typically a one- or two-week unit in a global environmental politics course or something like that, but nobody ever really spends a lot of time looking at it in depth so I thought that would be interesting.”

Additionally, Marcoux is coordinating a speaker series for next spring, and plans to teach a research seminar where students will both learn research methods and apply them to the PLAID project. Finally, during his last semester, Marcoux will teach a global environmental politics course.

“All the students I’ve worked with over the summer…they’re just really dedicated, really motivated and hard-working,” he said. “I haven’t had the opportunity to work with students in that capacity before, in terms of bringing them on board with research, and so I really didn’t know what to expect. … But from just what I’ve noticed this summer, it’s going to be really fun. I have absolutely no doubt that we’re going to be publishing research with students in regular academic journals.” i