Skip to main content
Portrait of Dean Lori Bennear
Lori Bennear Photo by Chris Hildreth

Lori Bennear

Stanback Dean, Nicholas School of the Environment

By LORI BENNEAR, Stanback Dean, Nicholas School of the Environment

Exactly 20 years ago, I was in my final year of a Ph.D. program at “the Duke of the North” when I received an offer to become an assistant professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. During my visits to campus, I was struck by the many positive attributes of both the Nicholas School and Duke – meaningful commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry, engaging and collaborative colleagues, motivated students, and some pretty good weather.

All of the original superlatives that drew me to the Nicholas School remain. Our faculty advance the basic and applied sciences that deepen and expand our understanding of our world, and develop and evaluate solutions to the most pressing environmental problems of our times. Our scholarship spans myriad disciplines and engages not only with the communities in Durham and Carteret County, where we live, but with communities across the globe. This diverse scholarship enables us to offer exceptional educational programs that attract the top undergraduates, professional students and Ph.D. students – students who inspire us all with their enthusiasm, energy, and passion for the environment.

Yet over the last 20 years, the Nicholas School has also been transformed. Our faculty and student numbers have increased significantly, and our scholarship spans a breathtaking breadth of topics and methods. The Nicholas School remains at the cutting edge of environmental scientific research – but the cutting edge looks different than it did when I first arrived.

While classical fieldwork continues, research at the Nicholas School has moved well beyond boots and buckets. Today, we increasingly rely on machine learning and artificial intelligence to help make sense of the terabytes of data collected from satellite and drone imagery. These data can be used to develop better models of climate, ecological, and oceanographic phenomena – helping us better predict climate impacts. We use increasingly sophisticated analytic and measurement tools to study paleoclimates and understand what constitutes a habitable planet. We work directly with communities to measure pollution exposure, understand disaster impacts and responses, understand relationships with fisheries and forests, and promote both community and climate resiliency. We work with government agencies, nongovernmental agencies, and the private sector to ideate, test, and refine solutions to environmental problems and to promote more effective governance of environmental issues.

As our research has shifted so have the types of students who enroll in our educational programs. We are as likely to have double majors in economics or computer science as in biology. Our forestry students are as likely to want a career in carbon finance as in timber management. We are increasingly looking to train the next generation of doctors and nurses to understand the environmental impacts on health. The Nicholas School student body is now a true microcosm of the entire university with students whose interest in the environment also intersects the humanities, social, biological, physical and technical sciences.

The breadth of scholarship and impact the Nicholas School has is the direct result of Duke’s legacy of leadership in environmental scholarship. The Nicholas School traces its academic roots to 1931, when professor Arthur Sperry Pearse, a world-renowned ecologist, convinced President William Preston Few to turn 5,000 acres of forestland near Duke’s new campus into the Duke Forest, a full-fledged teaching and research forest. Pearse also convinced Few to establish the first School of Forestry in the southern United States in 1938, and then to search the North Carolina coast for the perfect location for the Duke University Marine Laboratory, which opened on Piver’s Island outside of Beaufort, North Carolina, in 1938. The Nicholas School also contains the successor to the original Geology Department (1936) in today’s Earth and Climate Sciences Division. Future Duke leaders had the foresight to put these environmental programs together in one of the first Schools of the Environment in 1991, which became the Nicholas School of the Environment after a naming gift from Peter and Ginny Nicholas in 1995. This is the model of leadership in environmental science that some of our competitors are now rushing to imitate.

Duke is now taking the next step in this long legacy of leadership by establishing the Climate Commitment – a commitment to turn the entire power of the university toward solving one of the greatest challenges of human history.

Becoming a professor at the world-leading Nicholas School of the Environment was my dream job in 2004 and every day I wake up to the privilege and joy of going to my new dream job as the school’s dean. Durham has changed, the school has grown, our science has become increasingly sophisticated, but our legacy of leadership in studying, understanding, and solving the world’s environmental challenges remains evergreen.