“A lot of the environmental questions we have today necessarily overlap with human well-being,” said Luther College professor Molly McNicoll. “At those times, when we solve environmental issues then we can also solve human well-being issues.”
As an example, she cited the extensive pollution in the waterways surrounding Rio de Janeiro. The situation drew worldwide attention when the Brazilian city hosted the 2016 Olympics and highlights conflicts between environmental protection and development. Are there ways to improve the water quality while simultaneously addressing intertwined issues in the watershed supplying the city, such as degraded forests and the economic needs of rural landowners?
This fall, as visiting faculty director of the Brazil: Culture, Community, & Language at PUC-Rio program, McNicoll will lead a group of ACM students in exploring water pollution in Rio, as well as other examples in the city and region where overlapping human and ecological systems may provoke conflict or could lead to partnerships that benefit all sides.
A conservation biologist, McNicoll regularly incorporates case studies in her courses to examine the intersection of environmental conservation, economic development, government policy, and human well-being. She outlines a challenge or problem and uses guest speakers, site visits, and readings to give the students information on the topic from a variety of perspectives. Then the students work to find potential solutions.
In Rio, she will teach a course on Environmental Conservation in Brazil: Influences of Culture and Policy and guide students in the independent study projects. McNicoll is looking forward to teaching students from a variety of majors, not just biology.
“I’ve had students take my courses at Luther who are majoring in disciplines such as political science, business, psychology, and French,” she said. “Because there’s a human aspect to the courses, people find it really interesting to look at their own discipline from a new perspective.”
McNicoll noted, for example, that in one of her courses a student majoring in business and management approached environmental challenges as potential opportunities for businesses to engage in problem-solving. In another course, a psychology major did research on the mental health benefits of having people connect more frequently with natural environments.
“I think there will be plenty of opportunity for students to explore their own discipline within a new lens,” she said. “Conservation biology is not just biology — it’s really trying to get at the cross-section of a lot of different disciplines.”
Brazil is a good place for students to explore these types of multi-faceted questions while also experiencing another culture, according to McNicoll. She credits the country with sparking both her interest in cross-cultural learning, when she lived there as a Rotary exchange student, and her grounding as an ecologist when she conducted research in the Amazon, the Rio area, and other parts of the sprawling nation.
“You can feel at home there very quickly,” she said. “Brazilians are so warm and open — when they meet you, they treat you like they’ve known you forever. It makes it much easier to learn, just because it’s such a welcoming atmosphere.”
“Brazil is a huge, very diverse country in terms of both the people and the environment,” said McNicoll. “It has so many aspects to ask about and learn about that it’s just a very exciting place to be.”