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New Academic Department Launches at Catawba in ’17-’18 Academic Year

September 6, 2017

Category: Academics, Environmental Science, Students

cenv2017.jpgThe 2017-2018 academic year at Catawba College begins with a new academic department, the Department of Environment and Sustainability.  This Department will house both the academic major and minor of Environment and Sustainability, which were formerly housed in the Department of Biology.

This new department has two new full-time faculty, Dr. Luke Dollar, chair, and Dr. Tyler W. Davis, a visiting assistant professor.  The new department is also home to Dr. John Wear, who serves as director of the Center for Environment at Catawba and as an associate professor, and Dr. Sue Calcagni, an associate professor who will continue to have a joint appointment in Biology.


Dollar, formerly a faculty member at Pfeiffer University, is a renowned wildlife biologist and conservationist, and a National Geographic Explorer.  Much of his research is focused in Africa, as he manages the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.  In Madagascar, Dollar also leads ongoing, long-term research focusing on the ecology and conservation of the island’s largest endemic predator, the Fosa, a unique carnivore found nowhere else in the wild, resembling a blend between the mongoose, hyena, and cat families.

Dollar says his academic department at Catawba is seeking students who want academic adventure and to “move the world’s needle, and want to be able to do so in an informed way.”  He has big plans for the Environment and Sustainability Department, which most immediately include “expanding our GIS programs, as well as international study abroad opportunities for our students.”

“It’s a big world that needs big solutions,” Dollar shares, “and training students to deliver those solutions is our mission.  We will continue to help our students create and curate knowledge, and there’s a humility and strength that comes from understanding first-hand the context and magnitude of what it all means.”

Dollar also serves as an adjunct professor in Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He spent the summer of 2017 in Madagascar continuing his study of the Fosa, also with a brief stint in Cartagena, Colombia to present his research, alongside one of his graduate students, at the International Congress for Conservation Biology. He takes prides in sharing his research with local people to educate them about serving as wildlife caretakers rather than wildlife threats.

Dollar was educated at Duke University where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Anthropology and Psychology; his Master of Science degree and his Ph.D. are in Ecology.


After earning his Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering with a focus in water resources from the University of Pittsburgh, Davis went on to do research at Imperial College London. There, he worked with a team of paleoclimatologists, ecologists and environmental scientists to create an open-source model for testing new hypotheses on the controlling factors of vegetation growth (primary production).

"Developing this fundamental knowledge based on historical observations is crucial," Davis explains. "We must first understand how and why the natural environment around us works before we can predict how it will change under future scenarios."

From there, Davis spent two years working at the United States Department of Agriculture in the Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) studying how the physical structure and orientation of crop roots influences their vitality under various environmental stresses (for example, drought, nutrient deficiency and soil toxicity). Davis states that "our current understanding of how plant life organizes itself and adapts below our feet is limited, but what we have found so far has significant implications for our global food security."

As a civil engineer working in the life sciences, Davis takes a multi-disciplinary approach to address "grand challenges" in ecosystem science, plant biology and agriculture. "Today's grand challenges are complex threats facing the interaction between our environment and our own wellbeing," Davis shares. He believes that solving these grand challenges starts in the classroom, which is why he is excited to be a visiting professor at Catawba this year.

In addition to his computational work, Davis also has technical expertise with designing environmental sensors and sensing networks, which has given him a means of collecting novel datasets to assess the environmental consequences from our utilization of our natural resources. He is eager to bring his technical background to Catawba College, along with over 10 years of experience working with GIS (geographic information systems). One of his goals at Catawba is to embolden Environment and Sustainability students, as well as students across disciplines, with computational and technical skills that will be valuable in their postgraduate careers.

Students who have a demonstrated interest in pursuing an academic major in Environment and Sustainability at Catawba College may qualify for a departmental merit scholarship. Contact the Office of Admissions at for information. 

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