Interview with Mike Messina, Head, Department of Ecosystem Science and Management

Posted: October 7, 2017

Summer/Fall 2017, Issue No. 101

Q:  The department was five years old on July 1.  How are things progressing?

Mike MessinaMM:  Quite well.  But before I update everyone on our new department, a brief recap of the college’s reorganization might be helpful.  Readers will recall that a former provost ordered the College of Agricultural Sciences to reorganize into fewer “academic units.”  Effective July 1, 2012, we went from 11 departments and one school to nine departments.  In the process, the School of Forest Resources was renamed the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management by a former dean.  Concurrently, the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences was split into crop and soil science groups.  The crop faculty teamed with the former Horticulture Department to form the Department of Plant Science, and the soil science group teamed with to form our new department.  The reorganization included moving the Wood Products degree program to the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) to become part of the BioProducts Option of the new BioRenewable Systems degree.  These changes resulted in us losing four of our five Wood Products faculty who migrated to ABE, but we gained nine soil science faculty.  One of the Wood Products faculty, Chuck Ray, opted to stay with us, so we still have our hand in “things wood” as well.  This now makes us the Penn State center of excellence for teaching, research, and extension in forestry, wildlife, fisheries, soil science, and to some degree, water science and wood science.  In other words, we are the go-to place for expertise in the renewable natural resources.  I realize that soils may not be considered “renewable”, but soils can be managed properly to offer sustainable production in perpetuity. We continue to offer the B.S. degree programs in Forest Ecosystem Management and Wildlife and Fisheries Science at Penn State University Park, and the Forest Technology and Wildlife Technology programs continue, respectively, at Penn State Mont Alto and Penn State DuBois.  There is no undergraduate degree in soil science, but students can pursue a degree in Environmental Resource Management with a Soil Science Option. At the graduate level we offer both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Forest Resources, Soil Science, and Wildlife and Fisheries Science.

Our student organizations remain quite active.  Our chapters of the Society of American Foresters and The Wildlife Society participate in nearby projects designed to benefit central Pennsylvania’s natural resources.  They also represent us at local, state, regional, and national meetings, and we are able to help their travel due to the generosity of our alums.  We now have a Soil Judging Team, too, that competes regionally and nationally.  Our ESM Graduate Student Organization regularly holds a session for undergraduates interested in attending grad school. 

In summary, the growing pains from forming this new department have been virtually non-existent.  The two faculty groups brought together by the merger have worked together very well, and were quite pleased to combine forces to address a wide scope of natural resources issues.


Q:  You described how the College changed in 2012, but what remained the same?

MM:  The most obvious example of what did not change was our commitment to maintaining our long-time strengths in teaching, research, and outreach to forests and forestry, and wildlife and fisheries science.  These programs remain just as strong at the graduate and undergraduate levels as they were in the former School of Forest Resources.  In fact, we learned early in 2016 that the Society of American Foresters has renewed accreditation of our Forest Ecosystem Management degree for another ten years.  This external review of our program and the subsequent awarding of accreditation indicate that our commitment to an excellent forestry program remains as strong as ever.

Likewise, our Wildlife and Fisheries Science program continues to attract quality graduate and undergraduate students, to supply job-ready graduates to a variety of employers, and to perform world-class research on issues of importance to Pennsylvania and beyond.  Our WFS graduates can still achieve certification by The Wildlife Society or the American Fisheries Society.  In summary, although under a new name, what has not changed is the way I like to describe our Department:  We are real people solving real problems with real science while producing graduates ready to address a wide variety of natural resource issues.


Q:  What have some of the benefits been of this new organization?

MM:  The benefits of this new departmental composition became immediately apparent.  Not only did we add another natural resource to our list of expertise, but we are a larger department than we would have otherwise been.  Becoming larger in a large university is usually a positive move in these days of mergers, similar to conditions in the business world.  Plus, our soil science colleagues are now partners, not competitors, for resources in times of economic constraints.  There were very tangible benefits as well, not the least of which concerns our forest soils course.  Due to retirements of faculty who we could not immediately replace, we found ourselves without an instructor for our forest soils course.  One of the soil science faculty, Rick Stehouwer, volunteered to teach the course without even being asked.  This enabled us to continue offering specialized education in an area very important to sound forest management.

Other benefits have included the combination of experiences and knowledge of great value to running any academic enterprise.  Regardless of enrollment, there is a minimum amount of work, frequently accomplished by committees, to ensure compliance with university rules and government regulations, and the merger allowed our faculty talent pool to grow substantially.  Also, the merger combines research, teaching, and Extension talent in a way that allows us to address natural resource issues in a more holistic manner that might not be immediately apparent but is nonetheless greatly beneficial. 

An example of faculty collaboration bringing about new developments is the current effort to develop an online Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Ecosystem Management.  Penn State no longer allows specialized non-thesis degrees such as the Master of Forestry, but instead has instituted the MPS.  The intention of this degree is to provide mid-career natural resources professionals an opportunity to earn a graduate degree without having to enroll on campus.  Students would complete coursework in statistics, environmental GIS, and environmental policy, monitoring, and management.  Students would then complete four courses from one of the following specialized tracks: forest management, land management, or watershed management.  The specialized tracks would also be available as stand-alone graduate certificate programs.  The program would be delivered completely online and allow students to attend full or part-time.  This will be our first foray into offering an online degree, and the committee of faculty working on it consists of two Forestry and two Soil Science professors.


Q:  What are some new developments anticipated for 2017-2018?

MM:  We expect that graduate and undergraduate enrollments will remain steady through 2017-2018.  Our enrollments usually reflect national trends in similar degrees, and although our undergraduate numbers are not nearly as high as those in the past when enrollments, at least in Forestry, were high enough to cause management problems, we have enjoyed sustainable numbers in recent years.  And our students are doing very well in securing professional employment.  We initiated a student mentoring program in fall 2016 involving alums as mentors.  This is strictly voluntary on the part of both alumni and students, and we are currently in the process of evaluating that program’s success by surveying both the mentors and the students.  Although we had only eight students mentored in 2016, we anticipate increasing participation as the positive effects of this become known.

We saw some faculty changes in the first half of 2017 and expect more in the not-too-distant future.  Dr. Bill Elmendorf became the first holder of the Joseph E. Ibberson Endowed Chair in Urban and Community Forestry on May 1, 2017.  Dr. Jon Duncan, started on July 1, 2017, as our new hydrologist.  Jon was hired from a post-doctoral position at the University of North Carolina.  We are in line for College support to hire a soil microbiome faculty member, and will initiate that search in late 2017.  Finally, Dr. Jim Finley retired on June 30 after 42 years of service to Penn State.  We finished a search for someone to fill the position Jim held, but no decision has been made yet.  Jim Finley held the Ibberson Chair in Forest Resources Management, so we will be searching for a new holder of that chair as well.  In summary, we anticipate being very busy searching and screening faculty candidates throughout the remainder of 2017 and into 2018.