Holistic Approach to Research Pays Off for University

Environmental research at colleges and universities isn’t just scientific anymore. Increasingly, scientists are taking an approach to their work that includes more than laboratory analysis. That is the concept behind CLEAR, or Collaborative Education and Research, the brainchild of three professors at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

“What we’re trying to do is bring together as many professors as we can in all different disciplines to work on projects from a very integrated standpoint,” said Frank Bailey, Ph.D., associate professor of biology.

That means the project might bring together not only other scientists but academics from the worlds of history, economics, education, and other fields bring their experience to bear on the assessment of the results. This is an approach that attracts funding.

“We’ve been together for less than a year, and we have about $60,000 in funding already, both internal and external,” said John DiVincenzo, Ph.D., professor of chemistry.

The professors agree that the reason more scientists haven’t taken this approach is the work it takes to get scientists and non-scientists using jargon that all of them can understand at the same time.

“You’re starting to see more requests for proposals from organizations like EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and NSF (National Science Foundation) that want the holistic picture,” DiVincenzo said. “They don’t want to look at just the impact of a chemical in the soil and water. They also want to know, ‘If we remove that chemical, what’s the economic impact?’”

The MTSU trio admits that some academics can associate with colleagues outside their areas of expertise for the sole purpose of landing a grant, but never see each other again after the project is finished. Otter insisted CLEAR will be different.

“We’re working together and we’re going to have a track record of working together for multiple projects on multiple, different aspects,” he said. “As we go up for very highly competitive grants at the top level, our track record should speak for itself.”

The ultimate beneficiaries will be the students, both undergraduate and graduate, who will work with Otter, Bailey, DiVincenzo, and company.

“This will open the door for a lot more of them,” Bailey asserted. “They can get this perspective of what it’s like to design a project, work with somebody off campus, collect the samples, cradle to grave, all the way through, and finish the project and write it up.”

The starting point for CLEAR is the study of watersheds, specifically the waters and streams of the nearby town of Smyrna, Tenn. The scientists also are communicating with the Tennessee Duck River Development Agency and the Harpeth River Watershed Association. In addition, Angela Mertig, Ph.D., professor of sociology, and Cindi Smith-Walters, Ph.D., a biology professor who works with MTSU’s Center for Environmental Education, have a grant to study watersheds from sociological and educational perspectives.