Every other Monday, behind closed doors, a group of people huddle over a platter of sandwiches in Millington Hall to discuss and refine their plans to disperse mercury throughout the College of William and Mary.
Relax. These folks want to spread mercury throughout the curriculum, not the campus environment. They’re participants in a GIG, or Global Inquiry Group, a new type of program at the College that combines research, interdisciplinary collaboration and an international component. The mercury group is one of two new s-GIGs, or sustained GIGs.
“If we’re successful, we will reach every student at William and Mary,” said Dan Cristol, associate professor of biology. “In two years, every student here will come to the conclusion that mercury is a problem worth their thinking about and that the solution is international and requires interdisciplinary action.”
Cristol and Sharon Zuber are coordinators of the mercury s-GIG. Zuber, a specialist in documentary films, teaches in the English department and the Film Studies Program and directs the Writing Resources Center. Cristol, an ornithologist, has been researching the effects of mercury in wildlife for years, including a current study of birds near particularly contaminated sections of the Shenandoah River near Waynesboro, Va. The GIG had its genesis in a number of informal connections with Zuber at the hub.
“Dan (Cristol) had worked with a student a couple of years ago who did a documentary film about an endangered parrot in Puerto Rico,” Zuber recalled. “He asked if I had a student who might be interested in doing a documentary about the mercury issue up around Waynesboro. I also happened to have, living with me last year for a year, Xiong Li, a visiting scholar from Wuhan, China, and she was working with Mike Newman at VIMS in environmental science and heavy metals.”
Newman is a professor of marine science at VIMS—the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He has written the book on ecotoxicology—literally. Its title is The Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology. Newman’s a guy you’d want involved in any mercury group. Meanwhile, Liz Budrionis, a neuroscience major, began working with Zuber on a video about Cristol’s group studying mercury in birds in the Shenandoah. The thematic tentacles of mercury were beginning to spread.
First it was an e-GIG
The group coalesced last winter in the form of an exploratory inquiry group, or e-GIG, and rapidly expanded to include faculty and students from a number of departments and disciplines all working on mercury or interested in incorporating mercury into their work. Kelly Joyce, from sociology, and Monica Griffin, from the Sharpe Community Scholars Program, got involved early. So did Kris Lane, an associate professor of history who has done considerable work on small-scale gold mining throughout South America, operations that often leave a legacy of mercury pollution from the extraction process.
Other faculty members saw the potential to incorporate mercury into their own work. Elizabeth Mead, an assistant professor in art and art history, began attending the early e-GIG meetings and is now arranging for a Muscarelle Museum exhibition of some of the “Minimata” works of W. Eugene Smith. Smith’s photo essays of people suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning around Minimata, Japan, helped to bring international attention to the dangers of industrial mercury pollution.
“When we got together, we realized that half a dozen faculty or more here are already working on some aspect of mercury,” Cristol said. “Already, mercury is planted all over campus—conceptually! So what we’re going to do with the s-GIG is to put it into the curriculum through three different means.”
He said s-GIG members expect to develop eight new courses incorporating mercury, either as a case study or in a thematic sense. Mead is developing one such mercury-themed class, Heavy Metal and the Delta Blues: Sculpture and the Global Environment. Students in the course will create original works in response to two case studies—one involving mercury pollution and the second on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“It is a way for students to begin to understand that there are things that art can communicate that can’t be communicated in any other way,” Mead explained. “Of course I have nothing against formalist approaches that value ‘art for art’s sake,’ but as artists we can also use our distinctive ways of looking and seeing to position ourselves as artists within the world and the challenges facing the world.”
The second strategy for getting mercury into the curriculum, Cristol said, is for members of the s-GIG to incorporate a mercury element into existing classes, using it as a case study. “I teach introductory biology, and we always spend a week or two talking about cycles of a pollutant through the globe,” he said. “That pollutant can be mercury now. I need a fresh example anyway, so all the students taking freshman biology now will spend a week or two studying how mercury moves around the globe instead of how, say, nitrogen moves around the globe.”
Cristol says the third way will probably reach the most people. You might call it mercury evangelism.
“We’re going to offer small stipends to faculty to attend a two week seminar, probably in the summer, to work with a member of the s-GIG to work up an example using mercury for their class,” he explained. “Without this little incentive, they’re probably not going to go out and learn a whole new field just to get a new example. They’re probably going to use their old example. We want to encourage them to work with one of us to add a case study to their class involving mercury.”
As members of the s-GIG work to incorporate mercury into various aspects of research and scholarship, Newman, the VIMS ecotoxicologist, is adding an international element to his Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology course, a refinement that is “so easy, it’s almost sinful,” he said.
He is working out the details of an exchange program with Xiong Li, the Chinese scientist who roomed with Sharon Zuber. Xiong has since returned to her university in Wuhan and has been teaching a class in ecotoxicology, using not only Newman’s textbook but also the Blackboard materials and PowerPoints.
“We’re going to be teaching parallel courses in both places so we’ll have a common background when we do the exchange,” Newman explained.
The two ecotoxicology groups will have opportunities to get together twice. In February, as the plans currently stand, Xiong Li will bring a group of Chinese students to William and Mary. In June, Newman and Zuber will journey to China with a number of students, a reciprocal and mutually beneficial exchange.
“We’ll be able to develop the same background in the same context for these students and we’ll be able to do a dialogue of compare-and-contrast, which should be wonderful,” Newman said. “China is the United States after the Second World War as far as the economic boom is concerned. So it’s going to be fascinating for them to see what the U.S. is doing and visa versa.
“Mercury is something that people envision right now as localized. That just simply is not true,” he said. “Mercury because of its release with burning fossil fuels—especially coal—is dispersed very, very widely. It no longer is something where you can point to a pipe and say there’s where the mercury is coming from. You look all around you and whether or not you’re standing in China or Williamsburg, Virginia, it’s all the same global process. I would say that a good portion of it comes from China, but you can’t point the finger with no shame at all at China and say, it came from you, because I could get up from my desk right now and look out my window and there’s a coal-fired plant.”