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Sue Nichols
Assistant Director, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability

The environment isn’t just a big subject. It’s also a long subject.

So for the scientists who study it, it has become something of a family business, passing from generation to generation to ensure continuity. Practice becomes tradition.

Here in Campinas, Brazil, a city of about a million people situated northwest of São Paulo, four generations of Emilio Moran’s family gather. Moran’s former student, Mateus Batistella, now heads a section of Embrapa, the state-owned research arm of Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture. Juliana Farinaci is a postdoctoral student of Batistella who now helps advise Ramón Bicudo, who is working on his doctorate and plans on studying at MSU in the fall.

Moran has been venturing into the Brazilian Amazon for some 30 years. When he started his work, the idea of blending social and natural sciences was at best unusual—at worst heresy.

Back in his day—as the stories of the family elders usually start—you were supposed to pick your discipline and stick to it. Moran’s multifaceted career, now the stuff of academic legend, back then was a struggle.

Over the years, Moran has advised some 28 students from Brazil, the United States, and other countries. Now Farinaci and Bicudo in Brazil have majors in human-environment interaction.

“People are watching to see how this plays out,” Moran said. “I think students today get it, more than the faculty in many cases. The interesting questions are at the intersections of the natural and social sciences. Now they can actually be taught by both biologists and sociologists and address issues in interactive ways.”

The United States isn’t there yet. Moran says work is needed at universities to judiciously pare down requirements to allow room for students to study more than one discipline without compromising academic rigor.

So, it is like family—balancing tradition with youthful rebellion to change with the times.