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ERIE Trainee Nate Drag Attends Conference for Sustainability IGERTs at Arizona State University (11/5/09)

While the deserts of the Southwest United States do not often conjure up images of sustainability, graduate students, faculty, and IGERT alumni travelled to the Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ to participate in the second Conference for Sustainability IGERTs. Following the successful first Conference for Sustainability IGERTs in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2007, this three day conference brought together representatives from over 20 separate IGERT programs across the United States. Representing the University at Buffalo’s Ecosystem Restoration through Interdisciplinary Exchange (ERIE) IGERT was ERIE trainee Nate Drag, a second year Ph.D. student in UB’s Department of American Studies. Drag accepted the invitation to attend the conference and participate in conversations regarding a number issues that are facing science, society, and interdisciplinary programs in the 21st century. ASU’s Global Institute for Sustainability and School of Sustainability acted as gracious hosts as well as represented a model the of challenges interdisciplinary programs and centers (as opposed to discipline-focused academic programs) that are at the heart of the IGERT structure. Throughout the conference, this idea of collaborative problem solving was central.

The conference had several important components for intellectual exchange. The first component was the typical conference structure of plenary sessions, work groups, and breakout sessions, giving ample opportunity to explore subjects ranging from contrasting resilience in social, ecological, and socio-ecological systems, to the role of participants in research. Working groups reported back to the entire conference with ideas and possible future paper topics. “I personally left the conference with perspectives that I had never considered,” says Drag. “I plan to incorporate some these ideas into my own future research.”

After long days of theorizing and debating, conference attendees enjoyed the second component of the conference: the poster sessions. Each student’s personal research and home IGERT was on display for conference attendees to learn about. While the projects drew from diverse programs, the unifying theme of interdisciplinary research was presented as a unique advantage of the IGERT experience.  Drag’s poster, entitled ‘Great Lakes Urban Sustainability’ demonstrated his interdisciplinary understanding of inherent interaction of social and political realities with physical and biological concerns in the challenges that face the urban centers of the Great Lakes Region in the 21st century. “I think a lot of the conference attendees wished we could have had more time to talk about each other’s research,” says Drag. “Not only did we learn about everyone’s projects, but also their IGERTs and the communities they were from. Where else could I have talked with students from University of Hawaii, University of Wisconsin Madison, and Arizona State University all at once?”  Drag points out that, for students from new and young IGERT programs such as ERIE, it was inspiring to see the growth, success, and accomplishments of established IGERTs. The ASU Urban Ecology IGERT, for example, in its second and final round of funding, has produced a number of individual and group projects from a tightly-knit group IGERT trainees. “Being able to witness the realization of the potential of interdisciplinary education, as in the ASU IGERT, was worth the trip to Arizona in itself,” said Drag as he reflected with enthusiasm for ERIE and developing projects like the West Seneca Oxbow Lake Restoration Plan, which was highlighted in his ERIE IGERT poster for the conference.

The conference ended with a farewell banquet at the Desert Botanical Gardens outside of Tempe, AZ, where the view of the sunset was “gorgeous”, says Drag.  Several field trips, organized by ASU students, were planned for Sunday following the formal conclusion of the conference on Saturday evening.  These included a hike in the Superstition Wilderness and an Urban Research Tour highlighting sustainable planning and design projects in Phoenix. “Unfortunately, my flight left early Sunday morning so I missed out on the field trip”, Drag stated. “I would have loved to see how an urban center in the desert and that is infamous for its vast sprawling settlement patterns is attempting to revise itself mentally and physically to meet the ecological and social challenges of the 21st century. I now know to book my flights with plenty of time before and after the conference.”





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