December 2, 2016

Environmental Studies Blooms Under Caplow

With only three years to take root on Montevallo’s brick streets, Dr. Susan Caplow, assistant professor of environmental studies, has already grown a healthy, flourishing program.

Caplow came to UM directly after graduating from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Ph.D. in Environment and Ecology.

Before Caplow’s arrival, Dr. Lee Rozelle, professor of English, and Dr. Jill Wicknick, associate professor of biology, planted the initial seed that would later become the environmental studies program.

Wicknick and Rozelle collaborated to introduce the environmental studies minor in Fall 2010. As the years wore on, and the minor’s popularity steadily grew, the department soon realized they needed a full-time environmental studies faculty member to further grow and develop the program.

Caplow said she was struck by how open the job ad was. “As the first environmental studies position, they were really open to the particular strengths of whoever was going to apply,” she said.

After settling in, Caplow took the sprout of Rozelle and Wicknick’s vision and created a blossoming major, the first of its kind in Alabama public higher education.

She marks an important distinction between environmental studies and science: where the latter focuses on the technical side of ecology, the former is interested in the social, human side of the study.

“From a theoretical perspective, sustainability includes social sustainability. The human community is a really important part of our sustainable future, so that alone makes it important to engage with people directly,” said Caplow.

To the young professor, this social education will give her students an edge in the job market upon graduation.

“I want my students to not feel like they have to be in this particular profession because they got a degree in this particular major,” she said. “A liberal arts education is a versatile education.”

Beyond academics, UM also boasts an organic community garden, sculptural bike racks, a hammock park and the state’s only bike-sharing initiative, ValloCycle.

These programs are all part of the reason UM was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Green Ribbon School this past summer. Caplow took the trip to the acceptance ceremony in Washington D.C. with one of her top students, junior Morgan Pennington.

Now, Caplow said she plans to help maintain the progress UM has made and continue to cultivate the new environmental studies major.

She said she’s always been struck by the sentiment that in sustainability and ecology, one has to be the change they want to see in the world. With her education and research work here at UM, Caplow hopes to plant the seeds of progress toward a healthier, better world.