Research and scholarship in ecosystem modeling and sustainability science
Bill Currie is a Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He studies how physical-chemical, ecological, and socioeconomic processes work together to govern the functioning of ecosystems and landscapes. A key research focus at present is the study of emergence in ecosystems and coupled human-natural systems, explored through the lens of computer models. Emergence describes the way that higher-level or coarser-scale phenomena are produced by nonlinear interactions among individual agents or among finer-scale processes in a complex adaptive system.
Prof. Currie views ecosystems and human societies as coupled human-natural systems in which the natural and social dimensions are interwoven in complex feedbacks. The study of coupled human-natural systems is a key approach used in the growing field of sustainability science. Prof. Currie leads research teams to develop ecosystem computer models, often working in collaborative groups where a model is used to provide synthesis and increased understanding for applied problems. This research addresses how forest or wetland function is altered by human activities, including increased nutrient flows from agriculture and economic development, land use change and forest fragmentation driven by expanding human settlements, and the expansion of biofuel production and other agriculture.
With strong interdisciplinary interests, 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. 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 and ecosystem modeling, to land management decision-making, food security, and ecological economics. He teaches courses on introductory courses on ecology and global change and graduate-level courses in 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 vulnerability of defense communications networks. Leaving systems engineering, he spent a couple of years as a professional stock options trader with a seat on the San Francisco Stock Exchange. 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 ecosystems 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 apply the knowledge and advanced tools available to us to better understand the functioning of ecological systems and the resources they provide, to figure out ways to benefit human societies today while also maintaining the ability of ecosystems and the Earth system to benefit future generations. 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 has now been on the faculty at the University of Michigan since 2003.
Dr. Currie has two children in college, and as a hobby he pursues amateur drawing and painting (see his artist website).