A Decade of Leadership toward a Sustainable Future

From deforestation to contaminated water, air pollution to climate change, our world faces a dizzying array of sustainability challenges that hold consequences for our health, economy, and environment. These issues are so large, complex, and interrelated that the very act of addressing them can itself prove daunting.

Ten years ago, leadership and faculty at the University of Minnesota realized that solving such massive environmental challenges would require them to go beyond traditional forms of academic thinking to something more comprehensive. They needed to bring experts to the table not only from across University disciplines, but also from beyond the U, in the public and private sectors. Together, they would be better equipped to explore issues from multiple angles and to turn cutting-edge research into practical, real-world solutions.

The result of this vision was the Institute on the Environment (IonE), which has worked since then to accelerate society’s transition to a sustainable future. IonE’s research spans across disciplines and thrives on collaboration with experts outside of the U at the state, national, and global scales—from community organizations to the federal government to international nonprofits.

This year, IonE, housed within the U’s Office of the Vice President for Research, is marking a decade of progress as a leader in research and outreach around environmental and sustainability challenges. (Everyone is invited to its celebration this November.)

“Ten years ago, the University of Minnesota made an investment in this idea of engaged, interdisciplinary scholarship,” said Jessica Hellmann, Ph.D., IonE’s director. “And in the intervening years, we've shown that it works—from some of the ambitious, forward-thinking and influential research that has come out of IonE, to the ways we've empowered our partner organizations and communities, to the impact our leadership work has had on students, affiliates, and faculty across the University.”

IonE’s focus spans a wide range of issues that affect people across the globe, including securing a safe and sufficient water supply, understanding needs and trends in global land use, enhancing the effectiveness of renewable energy, and adapting to a changing climate. The institute also aims to change the way society values nature and to further sustainable business practices.

The initiatives and projects within IonE continue to pave the way today. Just recently, the NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise showed how the environmental impact of corn varies greatly across the US, the Global Landscapes Initiative introduced a new tool for visualizing climate change, and an IonE grant funded an expansive new renewable energy project.

Coming Together for the Environment

Over the last decade, collaboration has been key to IonE’s research and engagement. Today’s greatest sustainability issues, Hellmann said, require an approach that goes beyond the limits of one area of expertise.

“These challenges don't sit in a single discipline, and so—especially as a land-grant university—we need to be conscientious about crossing those boundaries and working in collaboration with people outside of the U,” said Hellmann, who is also the Russell M. and Elizabeth M. Bennett Chair in Excellence in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. “That's the role that IonE plays; it's a place where the intellectual powerhouse of the University overlaps with needs beyond the University’s walls.”

The institute connects leading research faculty in a wide range of disciplines with the public and private sectors, teaming up with companies, communities, government, and nonprofits, as well as others to advance solutions around sustainability and the environment.

This month, IonE aims to spark future collaborations by bringing together its whole community, from its in-house research teams and staff to its 113 faculty affiliates from across the University system. The institute’s first-ever annual meeting will fuel discussions into new ways to work together toward an environmentally sound world.

Spreading Knowledge, Creating Leaders

While collaborative research is one key tenet of IonE’s work, leadership toward a sustainable future is the other. The institute works to inform decision makers of sustainability challenges, prepare leaders across industries to address these challenges, and communicate new solutions widely.

One example of the institute’s leadership efforts is the Boreas Leadership Program, which offers University graduate students, professional students, and post-doctoral fellows free leadership development opportunities that build on the strengths of their graduate education.

Sarah Hobbie, Ph.D., who has been involved with IonE since becoming a fellow in 2011, has been closely involved with Boreas and has helped guide the program as a faculty advisor.

“Graduate students in the sustainability-related disciplines are increasingly looking for ways to make their work more relevant to society,” said Hobbie, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor of ecology, evolution and behavior. “Boreas offers training modules that complement but are quite different from the other kinds of professional development opportunities available on campus, helping graduate students gain the perspectives and skills they need to engage the public in the area of sustainability.”

Meanwhile, the institute also presents a broad spectrum of environmental and sustainability issues through its independent magazine, Ensia, a pioneer of solutions journalism. The magazine highlights the people, projects, and organizations stepping up to solve these issues across the globe—not just those at the U of M. Ensia’s stories have been used to inform policymakers, advance conservation efforts, and connect readers with different points of view.

Tenth Anniversary Celebration

On November 16, IonE will hold a 10th anniversary celebration at Aria in Minneapolis’s North Loop to reflect on the institute’s progress to date and what’s to come.

A short program within the event will include remarks from University President Eric Kaler, Ph.D., and an address from Hellmann about her vision for the future of IonE. The institute will also announce the winners of its first-ever Solutions Prize. Attendees will enjoy hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and entertainment.

Register for the event.