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Ecosystem and sustainability science

Bill Currie is a Professor of Environment and Sustainability and Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.  He is an ecosystem ecologist with strong interdisciplinary interests and a focus on mechanistic modeling.  His current research interests fall into four main areas.

First, exploring organizing principles in ecosystem science through modeling and in collaborative teams is the main focus of Prof. Currie’s current grant-funded research.  This includes work on linking plant community dynamics with nutrient cycling and carbon storage in forests and wetlands, as well as understanding nutrient retention, water flows, and plant invasions in wetlands.  This involves efforts to better understand ecosystem function as basic science, as well as applied work, e.g. working with wetland managers in the Saginaw Bay CISMA to understand the ecology behind removing invasive plants and restoring native marsh communities.

Photo of Bill Currie

Second, Prof. Currie seeks to discover how ecosystem science can better contribute to the new and growing field of sustainability science.  Sustainability science is a relatively new field that is being cobbled together from existing fields to understand the two-way interactions of human societies and the environment in the Anthropocene.  Currie is committed to the idea that researchers must work together across traditional fields to address the complex, large-scale, interconnected environmental and sustainability issues of the 21st century.  Solutions need to allow continued economic development while also improving environmental quality and maintaining or restoring the ability of the Earth system to support future generations.  He believes this is one of the greatest challenges we face as a post-industrial civilization.  In his research at the University of Michigan, Currie collaborates with field ecologists, geographers, remote sensing scientists, hydrologists, and land management professionals.  He has published over 50 peer-reviewed journal articles on a wide range of topics from biogeochemistry and ecology to land management decision-making, food security, and ecological economics.

His third area of current interest is in developing case studies of environment and sustainability issues in the Great Lakes region, part of a larger effort to develop sustainability teaching cases at the University of Michigan.  In the case-study approach, one begins by addressing a real-world problem, often a wicked problem that crosses scales and has multiple stakeholders with different perspectives.  Rather than teaching the principles of a single discipline using simple textbook examples, the case-study approach starts with a realistically messy problem and draws from the range of disciplines needed to understand it: these might include natural sciences, economics, business, law, and public policy.  By studying a variety of case studies, researchers and students look for deeper insights about human-environment interactions.

Fourth, Prof. Currie has a longstanding interest in the use of models in science:  How do mechanistic models contribute to understanding?  He approaches this from perspectives of epistemology, logic, linguistics, and simulation.  He is working on an AI approach to build ecosystem models that involves not only fitting data but integrating understanding.

Professional and university service

Dr. Currie teaches an undergraduate course on Sustainability issues in the Great Lakes region, together with graduate-level courses on wetland ecology and management, landscape ecology, and ecosystem modeling.

Dr. Currie is an editor for the peer-review journal Ecological Applications.  He serves on program review panels for the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

In professional outreach and engaged research, Dr. Currie currently collaborates or works with the Saginaw Bay CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area), the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative (UMGL-LCC), the Great Lakes Commission, and The Nature Conservancy.

At the University of Michigan he formerly served as Associate Dean, and in 2016-2017 he chaired the Faculty Transition Team assembled by the UM Provost to plan the new School for Environment and Sustainability.

Background and interdisciplinary interests

Prof. Currie came to ecology through a circuitous route. As an undergraduate, he studied physics and philosophy at Brown University. After graduating in 1983, he worked in a variety of non-academic settings. He worked as a systems engineer on the Space Shuttle for its primary contractor (Rockwell International) in the plant where the Shuttle was assembled, in Downey, CA. (This plant had a rich history:  it was where the Apollo Command Module was built, and before that, the P-51 Mustang.) Later he moved to Washington, DC to the consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton, conducting studies for the Department of Defense on a number of classified systems-engineering projects in the 1980s.  Leaving engineering, he spent a couple of years as a professional stock options trader, on the trading floor, with a seat on the San Francisco Stock Exchange.  He then spent half a year backpacking through Alaska, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia.

During these career changes and travels, and with a growing interest in the environment, Prof. Currie developed a sense that ecosystems and landscapes could be studied from a systems science and modeling perspective.  He also developed a sense of idealism that we in the developed world can apply the knowledge and advanced tools available to us to better understand human impacts on the environment and to lead the research and new ways of thinking that are needed to find sustainable solutions.

Currie completed a MS in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and a PhD in Natural Resources at the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire.  He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Woods Hole, MA at the Marine Biological Laboratory in the Ecosystems Center.  He served on the faculty at the University of Maryland beginning in 1997 and moved to the University of Michigan faculty in 2003.

Follow Dr. Currie on Twitter:  @WilliamSCurrie

Dr. Currie has two grown children and as a hobby he pursues drawing and painting (see his artist website).

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