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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Environmental Science Prof. Ross Virginia

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one in a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Ross Virginia.jpgRoss Virginia is the Myers Family Professor of Environmental Science and Director of the Institute of Arctic Studies in the Dickey Center. In 24 years of teaching at Dartmouth, Virginia has helped grow the Environmental Studies program, and his research takes him all around the world, most notably to the freezing regions around the north and south poles. There he examines critical questions for the future of our planet, like what are the effects of global warming and how do ecosystems react to changing conditions.

As a teenager, Virginia hoped he might go to Hanover as a student, and was the first kid at his upstate New York high school ever invited to a Dartmouth recruiting night. He had to postpone that dream due to family circumstances, and ended up earning his B.S. from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Virginia began in engineering, but switched majors after the school was briefly shut down in 1970 following President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. He graduated magna cum laude and went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D at the University of California, Davis, after which he taught in the biology department at San Diego State University for seven years.

Virginia arrived at Dartmouth in 1992 as the new chair of the Environmental Studies program, which had only two other tenure or tenure-track faculty (today there are nine). At the time, the program was known for its foreign study program in Africa, but it could only offer students a certificate. As chair of the program for the next eight years, Virginia took a leading role in proposing the ENVS major and minor (which were approved in 1996) and expanding the faculty. Today there are 8.5 tenure or tenure-track faculty in Environmental Studies and the program teaches 900 students a year, with at least 30 majors graduating every June.

Yet Virginia is perhaps best known for his environmental research, for which he has an H-Index of 57 and more than 11,000 individual citations. The most cited of his papers analyzed the deserts of New Mexico (he was a co-author). Virginia looked at why the southwestern U.S. has completely transformed in the last 150 years from highly productive grassland to harsh deserts. The results showed a cycle of feedback in the ecosystem where extreme grazing led to erosion which led to shrubs outlasting grass.

The areas in Antarctica that Virginia studies are similarly barren: ice-free, dry valleys that are Earth’s closest resemblance to the surface of Mars. He has visited the southern-most continent 19 times since his days at San Diego State. The wasteland makes a good laboratory since it’s less bio-diverse than other ecosystems. In the last ten years, Virginia has also spent a lot of time in the northern Arctic, which he calls the “front line” for climate change. He looks at how plants and soils interact, causing feedback loops as the temperature warms. For example, climate change has caused permafrost soils to thaw more deeply, which breaks down organic matter, releasing more greenhouse gasses, causing further warming:

With his role in the Dickey Center, Virginia has also begun to tackle questions of policy and science, including international relations with regard to Arctic changes. Here’s a one-hour lecture he gave on the subject in 2013.

(Interested in learning about Virginia’s research up close? He is leading a Dartmouth Alumni Travel trip this summer to Greenland and the Arctic Circle.)

Between all the trips and research, Virginia still finds time to connect with undergrads. This spring term, he’s teaching ENVS 15: Pole To Pole, Environmental Issues of the Earth’s Cold Regions. According to this 2012 profile in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Virginia often opens class with a song clip from his favorite band, the Grateful Dead. He recently switched priority for the course from upperclassmen to freshmen and sophomores; he likes the energy that change unleashed. Virginia typically mentors 4-5 undergraduates in his lab, and he wishes he had more time to teach a course that he introduced, ENVS 25: Ecological Agriculture, a sophomore summer classic at Dartmouth’s student-run organic farm.

Addendum: Looks like a nice place to visit:

Ross Virginia1.jpg

Addendum: Leehi Yona ‘16 writes in:

Made my morning to see Professor Virginia’s profile in Dartblog. He is one of the busiest professors I know, yet he always makes time for his undergrads. I’m lucky I didn’t know how famous he is when I asked to take his graduate course during my first year at the College, or I probably would have been too shy to approach him. In fact, that class ended with an offer to assist research in Greenland the following summer, and Professor Virginia has been advising my work — summer research grants through to a Stamps Award and a Senior Fellowship — ever since. I am ever so grateful for his mentorship.

Joe Asch comments: Brian Solomon’s profiles of the College’s finest faculty members are proof of my long-held assertion that our best researchers are most often our best teachers, and vice versa.

Addendum: We omitted to note that Virginia is one of two leaders of the Fulbright Scholars Program Arctic Initiative.

Addendum: Ross Virginia is not the College’s only conection to high-level Arctic research, as a College alumni press release notes:

John Walsh ‘70 is one the world’s most prominent Arctic scientists, and his journey to the top of the globe started 4,500 miles away as an undergraduate at Dartmouth.

Now the chief scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbank’s International Arctic Research Center, Walsh was recently named the recipient of the 2016 International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) medal for his “exceptional and sustained contributions to the understanding of the Arctic.”

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