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Growing Ecological Awareness, Partner Programs, Drive Interest in Conservation Biology

Growing Ecological Awareness,
Partner Programs, Drive Interest in
Conservation Biology

J. Alan Clark, Ph.D., studies Magellanic penguins, black-browed albatrosses, as well as avian vocalizations and conservation biology.
Photo courtesy of J. Alan Clark

Steven Franks, Ph.D., is a specialist in plant ecology and evolution.
Photo by Chris Taggart

Elizabeth Archie, Ph.D., is an expert in conservation biology, animal behavior, disease ecology and genetics.
Photo by Janet Sassi

By Janet Sassi

A new advanced graduate certificate in conservation biology, rolled out this academic year, aims to prepare Fordham’s students for the 21st-century race to save the world’s endangered species and to preserve biodiversity.

The 15-credit certificate is a planned outgrowth of the University’s recent successful partnerships with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)/Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).

It accompanies a rise in interest in Fordham’s biological sciences program, as applications to the department’s graduate program are up 50 percent from the previous year.

Students in the certificate program are required to complete two core courses (Conservation Biology and Conservation Law and Policy), two elective courses and a practicum.

According to William Thornhill, Ph.D., professor of biology and chair of the department, the certificate is made possible by the increase in conservation research opportunities for faculty and students that accompany the University’s new partnerships. It also substantially strengthens a department with strong master’s and doctoral programs in ecology and molecular biology, Thornhill said.

“Conservation biology is a field in life sciences that will gain importance because of species extinction,” Thornhill said. “As a mid-sized university we don’t have research plots and reserves around the globe, so being able to co-mentor with these surrounding institutions expands our range of research topics. It keeps us competitive with other universities designing these curriculums.”

J. Alan Clark, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, is a behavioral ecologist with an interest in Magellanic penguins and black-browed albatrosses, as well as avian vocalizations and conservation biology. Clark helped design the certificate program.

A former conservation lawyer with special interest in environmental policy, Clark is one of three faculty hired between 2007 and 2008 to strengthen Fordham’s conservation emphasis and develop research opportunities for students.

Clark recently returned from a trip to the Falkland Islands, the home of the world’s largest population of threatened black-browed albatrosses, and is working with the WCS to develop research opportunities for Fordham in the Islands.

“We’d like to get students down there, working on things like banding albatross chicks, or long-term monitoring, which is critical to these populations,” Clark said. “It’s a biodiversity jewel.”

The other two new conservation faculty are:

Elizabeth Archie, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, an expert in conservation biology, animal behavior, disease ecology and genetics; and Steven Franks, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, a specialist in plant ecology and evolution, whose research focuses on the effects of climate change on natural populations, especially fast-growing, weedy and invasive plants.

Archie, who began last September, mentors the program’s first student, Heidi Cleven, who will graduate with the certificate this month. Together, they are working with the San Diego Zoo to genotype a group of elephants in order to measure whether living with kin can improve the quality of life of a captive animal. The project, Archie said, has potential to shed light on whether to keep families together in captivity.

Much of Archie’s work in animal genetics is done through the collection of animal dung or hair.

“A lot of conservation biology relies on using non-invasive ways to study endangered animals,” she said. “We don’t want to be capturing endangered species.”

Archie hopes to collaborate with the Bronx Zoo on research into disease transmission, and disease consequences of the wildlife trade.

Franks is working with undergraduates at the NYBG’s Genomics Laboratory to discover the genetic basis of evolutionary changes in the flowering time of the wild mustard plant (Brassica rapa). His research has shown that the flowering time changes with climate shifts.

He is supervising a Fordham undergraduate student on the project, and is recruiting prospective graduate students to work with him on the research.

“The NYBG has fantastic resources for interns and students,” he said.

Conservation biology has been called a crisis-oriented science that has a timeline. Leading scientists estimate that that humankind’s present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by the year 2100. This dismal forecast is what convinced Cleven, who earned her doctorate in biomedical sciences, to go for the certificate.

“I’ve always had a passion for conservation biology,” said Cleven, who hopes to find work as a field biologist with an NGO or a national park. “It’s important to do something for the animals being affected, because they don’t have a voice.

“Somebody has to speak up for them,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects a 9 percent growth per annum over the next decade in biological sciences jobs, with particular growth in areas of environmental impact.

“Humans have had a negative impact on a number of the world’s ecosystems, and you can see species extinctions on the horizon,” Thornhill said. “Our students will be ready.”

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