Thomas Dietz

From an “Ecologist Directory” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2004-2005. Profile circa 2004.

Degree                                            Ph.D. 1979 (University of California, Davis)
Position                                          Director & Associate Dean
Department                                    Environmental Science and Policy
Organization                                  Michigan State University

Sustainability Science Award 2005


When did you get interested in ecology? Who was most influential in guiding you into ecology?

My earliest interests in the environment grew from time spent in a woods and meadow two blocks from my childhood home in Kent, Ohio. The conversion of that bucolic setting into a subdivision also fostered an interest in human interactions with the environment, as did growing up in a town bisected by the Cuyahoga River and near Lake Erie. At Kent State, Owen Lovejoy and Orrin Shane introduced me to human ecology. The power of “the evolutionary play in the ecological theater” to integrate diverse strands of science fascinated me. Then Paul Ehrlich’s “Death of the Oceans” showed how human ecology was at the center of the political struggles of the period. I had the privilege of working on two NSF “Student Originated Studies” projects examining the Cuyahoga River, both of which were highly interdisciplinary. Dennis Cooke and Dick Mack deepened my understanding of classical ecology while Tom Lough and Gene Wenninger offered a human ecology of contemporary societies. And of course, being at Kent State from 1968-1972 was a very special kind of education, independent of the classroom or the lab.

Describe your route to a career in (or using) ecology. What challenges did you need to overcome?  What was your training, and what positions have you held?

I pursed a Ph.D. in Ecology at Davis because it was, at the time, the most interdisciplinary program available, perhaps the only program that considered human ecology a core area. There Jim McEvoy and Jim Cramer in Sociology, Pete Richerson and Ben Orlove in Environmental Studies and many others provided me wonderful opportunities to think deeply about human ecology.

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a scientist. Some experience working with environmental NGOs and with state government confirmed my attraction to academia. Currently, I am Director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Michigan State and Associate Dean in the Colleges of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Natural Science and Social Sciences. I’m also a Professor of Sociology and of Crop and Soil Sciences.

What key advice would you offer a student today?

Make sure that your training in methodology is broad and deep. If you want an academic career, the safest route is to construct a CV that makes sense to someone who thinks only in disciplinary terms. That doesn’t prevent you from thinking and working much more broadly. And most important, don’t forget how much fun it is to do truly integrative work.



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