The University has no shortage of brilliant and diverse thinkers, and a few more will join their ranks as the College of the Environment think tank kicks off this semester. The think tank will focus on the theme of stress and vulnerability, but according to co-founder of the COE and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program Barry Chernoff, the topic and the specialists in residence will change every year.
“In our case it’s a group of people that will include Wesleyan faculty, scholars, and experts from the outside,” said Chernoff, who is also a member of the think tank. “We’ll work alongside Wesleyan students, come together and consider an important topic for an academic year.”
So far, a few of the participants have presented their research for discussion, but most of the conversations have been limited to finding common definitions of the subjects at hand.
“What we’ve been doing is examining the terms of the major topics,” Chernoff said. “What does vulnerability mean? What does resilience mean? We’re trying to come to an understanding of these terms so that when we communicate we know what we’re talking about.”
The think tank meets for three hours every week in the COE office to discuss the topic. In addition, each member has an office in the COE, so informal meetings and conversations occur often.
This year’s think tank is made up of three Wesleyan professors—Gary Yohe of Economics, Dana Royer of E&ES, and Gina Ulysse of Anthropology—two post-doctorate fellows supported by the Mellon Foundation Grant, two outside specialists, and experts due to arrive in the next month. Two thesis students, Phoebe Stonebraker ’11 and Jeremy Isard ’11, will also take part in the discussions.
Isard, who is writing about informal authority structures in Ugandan refugee camps, said the think tank has already strengthened his thesis.
“It’s really a privilege to be part of something like this,” Isard said. “Being a peer in this form is big for me because it allows me the place to really challenge myself in order to participate. It allows for great learning, and stuff just starts flowing.”
Covering a variety of topics—from Stonebraker’s research on fragmented gene evolution and biogeography to Ulysse’s interest in the Haitian experience—allows the think tank to discuss broad topics and relate them back to each member’s own pursuits. While this interdisciplinary approach can cause conflict, it can also lead to solutions that would never have been achieved individually.
“You end up in some big fights but the people who understand the interdisciplinary aspect and complexity of the issue don’t walk away,” Yohe said. “They try to help us understand their disciplines.”
Stonebraker views the think tank as a unique opportunity to search for missing information.
“We’re asking where are the holes, what don’t people do, what do people know, and how do we create a cohesive groundwork for work to come and for the years to follow,” Stonebraker said.
Although the think tank could stay in the theoretical realm, affecting only those working on research, both Stonebraker and Isard are looking for something tangible to take out of their discussions and positively influence community.
“We don’t want this to be a closed-door think tank—to me that would be frustrating,” Isard said. “The idea is to somehow communicate our ideas in words that are useful for the larger public. These cycles of contribution should end in some point of clarity that’s not isolated at this table.”
At the end of the year, each think tank member is required to produce a report or scholarly article, and their collective accomplishments will be presented during the University Earth Day celebration.
“We haven’t established the end product yet, because we’re really looking at how we do what we do, and what’s going to be the most effective thing we can make,” Stonebraker said. “Once we identify that, we can start moving towards it. By stepping back and looking at what we are doing, we can see ask how are we going to affect tangible change.”
In their early discussions on the College of Environment, Yohe, Chernoff, and the other founding faculty always had planned with a think tank in mind.
“In the long run I think it could create a place where Wes students can come and get involved in a wide range of researchable topics that really are on the frontier—and understand how challenging that is,” Yohe said. “It should lead to collaboration, looking for common ground, and common threads.”