Toddi Steelman on Doing Environmental Work Across the Globe

June 20, 2019

Steelman discusses her first year as dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and how the school’s faculty and students are meeting global environmental challenges.

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Toddi Steelman (left), dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, tours Duke Kunshan University with the director of the International Master of Environmental Policy program, Junjie Zhang. (Credit: Amanda Solliday / Duke University)

-by Duke Global staff

In the summer of 2018, Toddi Steelman assumed leadership of the Nicholas School, and she’s the first alum selected to serve as dean. She spoke with us about her deep roots at Duke and plans for the Nicholas School’s international work.

Q: What has your first year been like as the new dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment?

It has been great to be back at Duke. I graduated in 1996 as a doctoral student from Nicholas School and so this has been a homecoming for me. The opportunity to return as dean has been exciting. We have over 5,000 graduates who are out there working on the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. With that kind of mission, it is easy to get out of bed every day.

Q: In the Nicholas School’s strategic plan, four of the five top goals relate to diversity and inclusivity. Why is this important for the school?

The environmental field is not very diverse and we have a lot of work to do. I think we can all appreciate that diversity is important for a variety of reasons—we, as a school, want to look like and represent society at large. If we do, we will have greater impact.

We know that diversity contributes to more creative problem solving. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be diverse just for the sake of being diverse; we know that being diverse will make us better scientists, managers and practitioners.  

Q: How was your spring break trip to Duke Kunshan University? Did you see or hear anything that surprised you?

I am always surprised about the pace of change in China and the scale of development. Everything seems bigger there. I think everyone needs to be paying attention to China as it ascends as a global superpower.

I was amazed at the country’s ability to get infrastructure projects done. We took the bullet train from Hangzhou to Shanghai and I was amazed that you could build something like that in this day and age. That would be impossible in the United States.

China is also thinking more deliberately about its environmental challenges. While we were there, President Xi Jinping talked about the need to find “harmony” with the environment, which I took to be a statement of sustainability—how to balance economic, social and environmental values in a rapidly growing county.

Q: While you were at DKU, you were able to see presentations from several International Master of Environmental Policy (iMEP) students. What did you think?

I was really impressed with these students. They are going to be the next generation of environmental policy managers in a country that sorely needs them. While the pace of development in China is impressive, it has created enormous environmental challenges. This group of students is poised to tackle these issues head on. I very much look forward to seeing where they go and how they influence the direction of the country in future years.

Q: What other global research and study happens at the Nicholas School?

We have faculty conducting research all over the world—including the Antarctic! We do drone work down there to document whale behavior. We have faculty in West Africa investigating the decline of the forest elephant and the cascading effects it has on those ecosystems. We have faculty in the Middle East looking at the role of infrastructure as a target during war. We have faculty in Southeast Asia looking at how forests provide ecosystem services. We have faculty in Mexico working on carbon credits that were sold to Duke to help us meet our desired goal to be carbon neutral by 2024! These are only a few examples.

Q: What are some of your plans for global work at the Nicholas School in the upcoming years?

We will continue to have a global reach and that will be directed mostly by our faculty’s interests. Our connections with DKU will be very important to the Nicholas School given the new iMEP program and the significant challenges China faces on this front. I want to encourage more of our faculty to contribute to what is happening on this exciting new campus.

Related article:

Nicholas School Welcomes Alumna Toddi Steelman as Stanback Dean (Duke Environment Magazine)

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