Alluvian sat down with Jason Hamilton, chair and professor of the environmental studies and sciences department at Ithaca College, to discuss his academic history and passions. His background is in chemistry, computational quantum mechanics and plant ecology. He has worked for Ithaca College since 2001 and is not sure what his future holds.
SO: I see from the IC website that you have two MAs and two PhDs. Why did you do that?
JH: Maybe it just means I have a short attention span, I don’t know. When I was an undergraduate, I was chemistry major and so I went to graduate school in chemistry. And then I gravitated toward the mathematical, theoretical side of things and so I eventually got a PhD in computational quantum mechanics, which is a form of computational chemistry. But what I discovered along the way is that there is a big difference between learning to do something, like going to school, which I really liked, and becoming a professional in that area.
As I started finishing up my first PhD, two things happened. One was that I started developing an environmental conscience and I wanted to do something to work on environmental issues. But somebody who is trained in computational quantum mechanics isn’t trained in dealing with environmental issues. The second thing was that I got clearer in my head how I wanted to spend my working days. Doing computation quantum mechanics means you spend your working days in front of a computer, and I didn’t want to spend my working days in front of a computer. So I decided that I needed to switch.
But as I looked into how you make a switch kind of that late in your education, I found out that in some sense, you don’t. I’d never had any biology before. I wasn’t trained in any sort of environmental issues. But what I was trained in was scientific computing, and so I found an ecologist whose specialty was computer modeling of forest growth, and we kind of made a deal that he would give me the time to start learning some ecology, and I would use my programming expertise to help with his efforts. I didn’t end up staying in that group – but that’s how I made the transition. And then, the question was: Do you need a second PhD to do work in this field or not? Well. not necessarily, it just depends on what your job goals are, and by that point, I had decided that I wanted to be a college professor in which case then it was necessary. So I just kind of never stopped. I didn’t lose motivation -- I just never stopped.
SO: But you did so much graduate work only because you wanted to teach?
JH: I think that my passion, really, is that I want to work to make the world a better place. And, of course, whoever has a goal like that has to decide for themselves what “a better place” is. I had demonstrable skills as a scientist because I was almost finishing a PhD in chemistry and I had a passion for looking at the relationship between humans and the environment. And I felt that I really wanted to become an educator and a scientist and a communicator. I wanted to look at learning about the environment, taking knowledge about the environment, deciding what do we do with it as humans, and then working with people to try to build relationships with the environment to make happier, healthier people.
Again, in my analysis of how to make the world a better place, I thought long and hard about what my skills are because, since this is kind of a goal-oriented passion as opposed to a process-oriented passion, I felt that I should put my efforts in where I had strength-- and I felt that I was a good communicator and that I had the potential to be a good teacher, and that I also had the potential as a good primary data collector, as a natural scientist. I just felt then that those things went together to, kind of, point me where I should put my efforts. And my favorite part about teaching is everything, in some sense.
SO: But so many schools care more now about research than teaching? Don’t all your research and service commitments interfere?
JH: Yes in many places, professor’s duties are separated into, kind of, three categories: Teaching, Research, and Service. So you spend part of your time teaching your classes and working with your students. Another part of your time doing your research, whatever that might be. And the third part of your is service to the institution, working on committees or this sort of thing. I’ve managed to combine all those together in my work so that, for most of the time, my teaching and my research and my service aren’t differentiated from each other. And so everything I do is, sort of, working towards the same goal. But if you’re really going to ask me about what my favorite part about teaching, I would say my favorite part about teaching is building relationships with my students. Exploring how their journey in this area is changing their relationship with themselves and with other people and with the natural world.
SO: Do you have any favorite stories from teaching?
JH: Well, I am a storyteller. I have millions of stories. I could sit here for the rest of the day. You know I started off at Ithaca College in Global Change Biology. I was a global change biologist, and I studied the effects of elevated CO2 in the atmosphere on forest function and on agricultural production. So a very technical area. And I was an ecologist so I was teaching ecology in the biology department, and at that time I was really struggling because I thought ecology was just the coolest subject in the world, and a lot of the students I was teaching started off the class – before I even spoke – thinking that it was going to be a terrible experience. They were already predisposed not to like it. So I was really trying to figure out how you take people who were expecting not to like it or who are having to take it as a required class so they are already somewhat irritated and who don’t see this as important for their own personal goals -- and see how to take that group of people, make them think this is the coolest subject in the world also. One day I was taking a group of students up to a lab we were going to do in the woods. I don’t even remember what the lab was anymore, and I walked by a shrub that had some berries on it, and I had just recently learned that shrub had edible berries. Again, at this point, this was like 15 years ago. But I just kind of absentmindedly reached out, took a berry and just, kind of, said to the world, “Oh, you know, you can eat these,” and just ate it. I didn’t mean anything. It was just this absentminded, kind of, action as we were going off to go do some real science. And at the end of the semester, in the course evaluations, it turns out that turned out to be one of the most powerful moments of the entire class for a significant number of the students. They thought that this was just the most amazing thing that they had seen -- That you could just reach out and grab a berry off a bush and eat it. And it was amazing enough to them that in questions like, “What is your favorite thing about this class?” just seeing me eat a berry was coming up.
And I thought that must be the key to teaching ecology to people -- figuring out ways to make immediate, intimate relationships -- and eating is an immediate and intimate relationship because you are taking something from the natural world and incorporating it right into your own body tissues. So that got me, kind of, on this path that I am now where, eventually, through lots of twists and turns, I went to herbalism school and now I teach herbalism. I ended up going to tracking school to learn animal tracking because that was, kind of, the mammal equivalent in some sense of eating a berry. Being able to look at a track and knowing who was here. And so that re-launched a whole new direction of teaching. Now, I am not a global change biologist anymore. I’m not in biology anymore. I’m now in environmental studies and sciences. That was really a pivotal point, and the pivotal point of it came about because of this strong impact on people’s feelings about the natural world.
SO: You obviously care, but why is it so important to engage all people, scientists and non-scientists, in science and nature?
JH: Well I think all you have to do is look around a little bit and realize that scientists, whatever we are doing, something is wrong, because scientists’ views on environmental issues are pretty wildly different from views on environmental science held by the general public. And that includes views on climate change, the main environmental problems today, all kinds of stuff. If you ask people – the general public – the answers don’t match what the climate scientists or ecologists or the biologists say, which means that there is a really significant gap here.
And the problem has to be coming from the scientists because if the general public doesn’t know this stuff, then it’s not their fault that they don’t know. I think then that science is only useful if it is used for something. Now that doesn’t mean that everything has to be immediately applicable but I do think that science that just stays in the head of the researcher is kind of a useless activity. And so it’s really part of our job to communicate with the public. Science is really expensive, and I think that there basically has to be a deal between the scientists and society -- that if the society is going to support science, which is real expensive, then we have to give something back, in terms of improved quality of life, knowledge, curiosity, something to the world.
SO: And some people would say that it’s the media’s fault.
JH: Either way, I would say that even if it’s the case that the media… Well the media just is what it is. They sensationalize things. They try to build controversy, and they try to show controversy where it isn’t. But I still think that if the scientists were explaining things properly, if they were showing things rather than just telling things, if they didn’t let the media get away with the shenanigans, if they even spoke to reporters in the way that reporters were understanding, I think that things would be a lot better.
SO: I read on your bio that you are really into an interdisciplinary approach to teaching. So why is that approach so important? We’ve touched on it but would you elaborate?
JH: “Interdisciplinarity” comes in a couple different versions in my view. So one kind of “interdisciplinarity” is mixing subjects together. So, for example, if you take a big problem like climate change: Climate change is not a problem that can be solved with any one discipline. The physicists are not going to solve climate change. The biologists are not going to solve climate change. The political scientists are not going to solve climate change. And the reason for that is if you then ask it a little bit differently and say, “Well, what kind of problem is it? Is it a scientific problem?” Kind of, partly. “Is it a social problem?” Yes. “Is it an economic justice or environmental justice problem?” Yes. “Is it a philosophical issue?” Yes. It’s all of those things. So for these real-world big issues, they don’t separate into kinds of units, in terms of science, social science, humanities, they just are what they are. So I think that an interdisciplinary approach is in fact the only way to deal with the big issues that we are facing in the 21st century.
So that’s one part -- the subject matter division. The second one is that, oftentimes in our school and our coursework, we separate our different ways of thinking. There are lots of models of different ways of thinking. One of the easy ones is that we have cognitive learning affective learning (which is like emotions), and kinesthetic learning (which is doing things with our body). And so as a college student, you might take a dance class, so there’s the kinesthetic learning. You might take a chemistry class, so there’s cognitive learning. And then you might take a class in gender studies where you are really exploring your own feelings about things. But for the most part, these are separated. But real people working in the real world don’t separate these things. We’re doing all these things at the same time. So then, for me, another part of “interdisciplinarity” is exploring how can we combine our cognition, our affective responses, and our bodies into happy, healthy human beings that are really understanding issues from all different sides.
SO: You have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about sustainability in your service commitments. Could you talk more about your approach?
JH: The whole concept of sustainability came about by basically this analysis of, “just look around and things could be better.” Why don’t we say it that way? If things could be significantly better then they are, maybe part of the issue is that we are approaching things incorrectly.
So this goes back again to these concepts like climate change or interdisciplinary thinking, which is that maybe the problem is in the ways we have our education and our thinking, and our government set up -- we are dividing things up into categories that can’t be divided into categories. Now you can’t just study everything all at once because our brains just don’t work like that. So we need some sort of organizing principle that is going to allow us to combine knowledge, approaches, how to focus limited resources like time and money -- and sustainability turns out to be a really handy way to do that. At some point you have to decide what that means. What is a better place? So there has to be some sort of analysis of what does a better place even look like. And that’s really what sustainability is all about. Thinking from a systems point of view. What really is a better kind of place? And I think that is what gives the organizing principle to things like environmental studies, physics, or whatever or being a plumber, or a garbage man, or a farmer, or raising children -- how are we going to, as a group, get together, work out what a better place does look like. To me, that’s really what sustainability is. It’s that conversation. What does a better place look like?
SO: What does the future hold for you now?
JH: That’s a really interesting question. I started off in computational quantum mechanics and then I got a PhD in plant physiological ecology and then I switched to eco-physiology with a specialization in global change biology and then I came to Ithaca College and I became a sustainability scientist and was a sustainability scientist for about a decade.
Now, I don’t even know what you call me anymore. I guess you call me an interdisciplinary scholar, maybe. Because again I am doing some things that look like science, and some things that look like social science, and some things that look like philosophy, some things that are kind of modern in their approach, and some things that are ancient in their approach. So given the fact that I seem to keep finding new and different things to do, I’ve wondered the same things to myself, like, what’s the next new thing that is going to catch my attention?
Of course I have no idea because while I was in any one of these career parts of my life, I didn’t know what the next thing was going to be until I discovered it. One possibility is that I am going to discover some new thing and I am going to go running off into that direction. That’s very possible. But I won’t know it until I discover it. For the time being then, until that happens, I’m really happy working in this area of “how does, and how can, education alter people’s relationship with the natural world?” Not that I am trying to alter it in a certain way. I can’t decide what someone’s relationship with the natural world ought to be. But I do think that, as an educator, I can get people to explore for themselves what it might be. And so things like Non-Timber Forest Products, teaching traditional animal tracking, incorporating herbalism into higher education, these are the sorts of things that I am really interested in -- how they are changing people’s affective state of mind. How are they changing relationships. That’s kind of where I am going right now.
SO: So do you have any other things that you want to add, anything I missed? Maybe advice to students?
JH: So, you know, a couple things in advice. I think my career is a good example that every step of the way, I did things that I didn’t even knew existed until shortly before. When I became a chemistry major, for example, I thought I was going to become an industrial chemist. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as computational quantum mechanics. So I could have never planned to be one because I had never heard of it. When I made the switch from quantum mechanics to eco-physiology – again I had never heard of eco-physiology – so I couldn’t have planned to be that. I discovered it later. And every step along the way, when I became a sustainability scientist or I went into Non-Timber Forest Products, I’d never heard of any of these things before. So I think that, if at least if my path is any sort of model, I guess one lesson would be to try to train yourself for something that you have never even heard of before. How do you do such a thing? Well I think one way is by not specializing too soon. Another thing is that you allow yourself the intellectual freedom to say, “Even though I don’t know how to do that, I’m going to do it anyway,” rather than saying, “Since I don’t know how to do that, I better not try.” If you just declare that you are going to do it, then you probably will. And if you aren’t successful, you’ll discover something else new along the way that you never heard of before and it’s probably going to be just as cool or even better than the thing that you were trying in the first place.