Mollie McIntosh certainly paid her dues. She was bitten by an evil-looking water bug while collecting samples in a Michigan pond; she spent months sweltering in Ghana while investigating the spread of a contagious disease; she tromped chest-deep into stagnant wetlands around Cincinnati gathering insects and crustaceans from the muck. All in the name of science.
But all that slogging and sampling helped land her the job of teaching the main course for Xavier’s newest major: environmental science. Xavier has offered an environmental studies minor for several years, giving the new major a solid foundation on which to grow. All that was needed was someone to lead the way.
McIntosh, who specializes in aquatic insects, arrived in 2010, fresh from the field, to do just that. She had spent most of the preceding spring in Ghana researching the cause of the water-borne Buruli ulcer, a disease that is spreading across Africa. Left untreated, the ulcer causes horrendous open wounds that travel around its victims’ body and can leave disfiguring scars. It can also be fatal. Her research concluded that aquatic insects are not the primary means of transmission, but researchers still suspect the cause is water-based.
“For me, it was a lesson that most environmental problems are very complex,” McIntosh says. “It gave me experience working on a problem with multidisciplinary issues.”
And that is precisely what environmental science teaches, she says.“We are dealing with large environmental problems that are complex and require knowledge from multiple disciplines including social, political and economic.”
In addition to McIntosh’s Introduction to Environmental Science, the 15 students in the program study ecology and natural resources economics. The major is science-based, so they also take general biology, chemistry and physics, and choose from environmental science electives. Program co-director and associate professor Brent Blair says Xavier wanted to offer the major for students who like science but don’t want to focus on medicine.
“We thought this would be a good offering to balance our department,” Blair says.
One of the highlights of the major is the fieldwork students participate in. McIntosh took two students to the island of Palau in the South Pacific last summer to help set up a water quality monitoring program. And every winter, the department offers an ecology class in Costa Rica led by Blair and associate professor George Farnsworth. Closer to home, students collect water samples from the Mill Creek—once described as the “most endangered urban river in North America” by the conservation group American Rivers—take field trips to the local landfill and recycling center, and practice composting techniques.
“We need to understand the natural environment without humans so we can understand the effect we have on it,” McIntosh says.
In December, after only three semesters, the program graduated its first student. Like most environmental science majors, Fritz Schroder was a biology major who wasn’t sure about a medical career. When he learned the environmental science major was approved, he took the plunge and switched.
To complement his classes, Schroder found a summer internship with Thomas More College’s biological field station on the Ohio River. And this fall, he completed a senior project spearheading a composting program for Xavier’s cafeteria food waste.
Before his last semester was over, Schroder was interviewing for two jobs, one with the Cincinnati Water Works, the other with the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality program in Cincinnati.
“I just found the classroom work was really interesting, learning about issues facing us today like global warming, water shortages, composting and how you can really make a difference for the environment,” he says.