Research and scholarship in ecosystem science and sustainability science
Bill Currie is a Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He studies how physical, chemical, and ecological processes work together in the functioning of ecosystems, such as forests and wetlands, and how their functioning is altered by human activities. Examples of human impacts include increased nutrient flows from agriculture and economic development, land use change and forest fragmentation driven by expanding human settlements, extraction of natural resources, and the expansion of biofuel production and other agriculture. Prof. Currie uses computer models of ecosystems, including models in which he leads the development team, to explore ecosystem function in areas across the spectrum from wildland to heavily human-dominated landscapes. He often works in collaborative groups where a model is used to provide synthesis and increased understanding. He uses models to combine field data with ecological theory, to study complex applied questions in land management or restoration, or to examine future scenarios under alternative future conditions such as climate change or economic development causing land use change.
Over time Prof. Currie’s interests have broadened to view (as many in this field do) ecosystems and human societies as human-natural systems that are intimately coupled, the natural and social dimensions interwoven in complex feedbacks. Prof. Currie views this as a key foundation for the growing field of sustainability science. With strong interdisciplinary interests, Currie is committed to the idea that researchers must work together across traditional fields to address the complex environmental and sustainability issues of the 21st century. He 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, ecosystem and community ecology to ecosystem modeling; and from theoretical physics to land management decision-making, biofuels, food security, and ecological economics. He teaches courses on introduction to ecology and global change, landscape ecology, wetlands, and ecosystem modeling.
Professional and university service
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, Dr. Currie currently collaborates with the Saginaw Bay CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area), the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative (UMGL-LCC), 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 this field through a circuitous route. As an undergraduate, he studied physics and philosophy at Brown University, graduating in 1983. He then worked in a variety of non-academic settings before returning to graduate school. He worked as a systems engineer on the Space Shuttle for its primary contractor (Rockwell) in the plant where the Shuttle was assembled, in Downey, CA. Later he continued the systems engineering focus at the consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton in Washington DC, conducting studies for the Department of Defense on a number of classified projects in the 1980s, including space-based lasers and the effects of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) on communications networks. Leaving systems engineering, he spent a couple of years as a professional stock options trader. He leased a seat on the trading floor of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange in San Francisco, where was trading on the floor when the stock market crashed in 1987. Leaving the world of trading and finance, he then spent half a year backpacking through Alaska, Australia, Europe and Southeast Asia.
During these travels, and with a growing interest in the environment, Prof. Currie developed a strong sense that global biogeochemical cycles like the carbon cycle could be studied from a systems science and modeling perspective. (This is a common view today, but was much less understood in the 1980s). He also developed a strong sense of idealism that we in the developed world can better use all of the knowledge and advanced tools available to us. We can use these to better understand the functioning of ecological systems and the resources they provide. We can also work to understand how ecosystems can be stewarded to provide services to current human societies while also maintaining their ability to benefit future generations. He returned to graduate school to gain a broad foundation across a range of environmental sciences, completing 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 has now been at Michigan since 2003.
With two children off to college, Dr. Currie now also has time to do amatuer drawing and painting (see his artist website). He considers himself an armchair futurist, and he is working on a trade book on the progress of knowledge discovery.