Meet Duke’s new climate faculty of 2023
Meet Duke’s new climate faculty of 2023
Throughout the disciplines and across its schools and programs, Duke is employing and empowering climate-fluent leaders to educate a new generation of students.
Scroll down to learn more about each new faculty member.
Assistant Professor of History
M.A. Harvard University, 2016 · Ph.D. Harvard University, 2023
Born and raised in southwest Virginia, an Appalachian and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Hannah Conway’s work is rooted in an abiding love for her ancestral Southeastern Native land and a commitment to building better and more just futures for southern communities.
“In my research, I use historical evidence and methods to identify root causes of environmental injustices…”
“In my research, I use historical evidence and methods to identify root causes of environmental injustices which can hopefully provide community members and policy makers with a clearer picture of how material conditions impacting their homes and livelihoods have developed over time, so they can advocate for real, systemic change.”
“Little environmental history of the U.S. South has been done by Southeastern Native historians writing as epistemic and scientific experts. Indigenous peoples have been fighting for our survival and the health of our lands across centuries of colonization, and our communities globally are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and the effects of a changing climate.”
“It’s uniquely exciting to have the opportunity to help build the History Department’s new Environmental History concentration and to support the Native American Studies Initiative under Dr. (Courtney) Lewis’ incredible leadership.” Conway wants “students from the South — and particularly Southeastern Native students — to feel like Duke is a place they can thrive and develop skills and tools that will help them build healthier and more sustainable futures for their land, communities, and people.”
Jeseth Delgado Vela
Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
B.S. University of Texas, 2012 · M.S. University of Michigan, 2014 · Ph.D. University of Michigan, 2018
Previously at Howard University, Jeseth Delgado Vela’s area of expertise is biological water and wastewater treatment with a focus on resiliency using advanced molecular methods and computational modeling. Her research also addresses greenhouse gas emissions from wastewater treatment, including possibly harnessing microbes that could help mitigate the release of methane and nitrous oxide.
“I am interested in understanding how to quantify wastewater infrastructure resiliency to climate change and developing bioprocesses that enhance both resiliency and sustainability.”
“Duke’s active research environment and investment in climate across campus are very appealing to me. It is truly invigorating to be a part of a greater community that is invested in both mitigating the effects of climate change and developing solutions to tackle the climate crisis.”
“There are a couple of ways that my research intersects with climate and sustainability. I am interested in understanding how to quantify wastewater infrastructure resiliency to climate change and developing bioprocesses that enhance both resiliency and sustainability.”
Delgado Vela’s personal experiences and time at Howard have solidified her belief that “climate and sustainability are a great entry point for young people to get excited about engineering.” Her goal is “to ‘get the message out’ on how climate and sustainability intersect with engineering — specifically civil and environmental engineering — because it could bring new and diverse voices to the sector. This will ultimately help us to develop equitable and more broadly accessible climate solutions.”
Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science
B.S. Wuhan University, 2016 · Ph.D. Texas A&M University, 2020
Liang Feng is engineering platforms to store gasses for climate and energy applications such as capturing carbon, or fueling vehicles.
Feng is a rising figure in the field of engineering highly porous materials and encapsulating high concentrations of gas molecules within them. He is designing new systems for storing carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
Adsorption, in which particles adhere to the surface of a substance rather than being dissolved into it, naturally occurs when particles of high density and high energy transition to surfaces of low density and low energy, and it typically stops once an equilibrium is reached. Feng, however, has devised artificial molecular machines that actively and continuously grab and store molecules onto surfaces at very high concentrations through a process he dubbed mechanisorption.
“This mechanism will be essential over the coming years to many applications related to the environment and sustainability, such as the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the air or ocean.”
“This is a completely new discovery compared to traditional adsorption modes that have governed the industry and academia for one century,” Feng said. “It means that we can now employ renewable energy sources, like light and electricity, to propel molecules from areas of very low concentration. This mechanism will be essential over the coming years to many applications related to the environment and sustainability, such as the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the air or ocean.”
His newly created course, ME 490/555 Carbon Management for Climate and Sustainability, explores advanced carbon cycle science and innovative technologies like carbon capture and conversion. Feng is joining the engineering faculty at Duke, he says, because of the entire school’s devotion to solving problems related to climate change.
Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
B.S. Hamilton College, 2007 · M.Phil. Yale University, 2012 · M.S. Yale University, 2012 · Ph.D. Yale University, 2014
Leanne Gilbertson bridges molecular- and systems-level material design for applications that improve the environment and public health.
“There is a lot of energy behind climate- and sustainability-related activities across the university. The reality of climate impacts on society and the environment are salient; students entering Duke’s community are arriving with knowledge about and exposure to these realities, fueling their excitement to make an impactful difference.”
“My research aims to break this cycle by considering impact and benefit tradeoffs across the life cycle of solutions early in their design.”
“There are many examples of solutions proposed and implemented to address global climate and sustainability challenges that may solve the intended problem but introduce another. These unintended consequences shift the burden, and a new challenge emerges. My research aims to break this cycle by considering impact and benefit tradeoffs across the life cycle of solutions early in their design.”
“We design materials in my lab, changing their chemistry to impart desirable properties while also looking at embodied resource footprints of their production, impacts of their use and how they might be handled at the end of their first life. My research group is considering how to “design in” properties that support the transition from linear to circular material systems and how to preclude adverse impacts from the beginning. This holistic approach to material design is challenging, but that’s what makes it fun.”
“I am excited to expand my research program here at Duke,” said Gilbertson, “in particular, working with the brilliant researchers across the university on ways to create integrated systems-level assessment and sustainability metrics in designing materials through a shared vision of improving the planet.”
Assistant Professor of Geochemistry of Earth, Water, and Air Systems
B.S, B.A. University of Notre Dame, 2014 · Ph.D. University of Washington, 2019
Michael Kipp’s area of expertise is Earth history, biogeochemistry and isotope geochemistry, or as he calls it, “paleo-bio-geo-chemistry.”
“Studying Earth history is our only way to observe other climate states. If we want to know how the Earth system will respond to human greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, centuries and millennia, we need to study the geologic record of past climate perturbations.”
“It is humbling and awe-inspiring to study Earth’s evolution as a habitable planet over 4.5 billion years. That same wonder catalyzes a desire to protect what we have, directly feeding into efforts in sustainability and climate policy.”
“Studying the biogeochemical mechanisms by which Earth has maintained habitable conditions is also critical for understanding the distribution of Earth-like habitable worlds beyond our solar system. As astronomy is experiencing the exoplanet revolution and characterizing the atmospheric composition of distant planets, it falls upon Earth historians to provide context for interpreting signatures that don’t resemble Earth today but might look like Earth 2 billion years ago.”
“I was drawn to Earth science through the wonder instilled by its vast scales of time and space. It is humbling and awe-inspiring to study Earth’s evolution as a habitable planet over 4.5 billion years. That same wonder catalyzes a desire to protect what we have, directly feeding into efforts in sustainability and climate policy.”
“I’m particularly excited to be joining the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke,” said Kipp. “Its broad scope from fundamental to applied research and even policy rarely falls within the same academic units — let alone same buildings — on other campuses, and it offers many opportunities to follow an idea from concept to practice.”
Executive In Residence in the Pratt School of Engineering
B.S. Tufts University, 2008 · M.S. Duke University, 2015 · M.S. Mississippi State University, 2007 · D.Phil. Duke University, 2017
Judy Ledlee’s specialty is cleantech innovation and commercialization in green technology. Named executive-in-residence at the Pratt School of Engineering and the Nicholas School of the Environment, Ledlee leads the Design Climate Program.
In addition to recruiting students and faculty mentors to the new program, Ledlee’s responsibilities will include developing graduate-level courses on climate and sustainability engineering; recruiting industry and community partners to serve as clients for student projects; and working with both schools’ career centers to ensure robust hiring of Design Climate Program graduates.
“Judy brings the real-world experience, the advanced knowledge of environmental engineering and science, the love of problem solving, and the deep commitment to sustainability we’re looking for.”– Toddi Steelman, former Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School
Ledlee’s doctoral research focused on developing a membrane distillation technology to treat wastewater from hydraulic fracturing and allow it to be reused — significantly reducing fracking’s water footprint and the amount of chemical- and salt-laden wastewater being discharged back into the environment.
In 2013, as a third-year doctoral student, she led a team of Nicholas and Pratt graduate students that won the Duke Start-Up Challenge in the Clean Energy track for developing an early version of her membrane distillation technology. That same year, she co-founded a start-up company, Refrackt, to market the technology.
Throughout her career, Ledlee has worked on entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial activities and is excited to return to Duke and create opportunities for new generations of students to develop innovations for addressing climate challenges.
Professor of the Practice of Natural Resource Finance in Environmental Science and Policy
B.S. Beijing Forestry University, 2002 · M.S. Beijing Forestry University, 2005 · M.S. Mississippi State University, 2007 · Ph.D. University of Georgia, 2010
Prior to joining Duke, Richard Mei served as a faculty member for 13 years at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, conducting research and teaching in the general area of timberland investments, forest-based climate solutions and forest finance decision-making.
“I was hired by the Natural Resources Finance Initiative at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the mission of which is to cultivate the next generation of talent in natural resources finance and to build a close relationship and partnership with the natural resources industries and conservation organizations.”
“My research on forest carbon can help the greater Duke community, as well as the general public, understand the benefits and costs of forest carbon and its related policies.”
“The opportunity to explore natural-based solutions to mitigate climate change and global warming” is what excited Mei the most about coming to Duke. His research and experience teaching forestland investment and valuation and forest carbon-based climate solutions aligns with the Nicholas School’s Natural Resources Financial Initiative goals.
“I would like to highlight that forests not only produce fiber but also sequester a significant amount of carbon; forests store the vast majority of the total terrestrial carbon. My research on forest carbon can help the greater Duke community, as well as the general public, understand the benefits and costs of forest carbon and its related policies.”
Executive Director of the Master of Engineering in Climate and Sustainability Engineering Program and Executive In Residence in Civil and Environmental Engineering
B.S. Duke University, 2006 · M.U.P. New York University, 2011
Starting her career in New York doing highway and bridge design, Sara Oliver’s professional background is in engineering infrastructure design and program management. Following Hurricane Sandy, Oliver’s focus shifted to resilience and designs related to climate change challenges. Oliver’s experience ranges from managing the design of a flood protection program at the World Trade Center, to working with FEMA partnering with communities across the country to increase their resilience.
“Civil engineering sits at the nexus of where humanity interacts with nature through the built environment.”
“Civil engineering sits at the nexus of where humanity interacts with nature through the built environment. As humans, we impact the environment, and through climate change we are now seeing and feeling the ramifications back on us. As engineers, we have a responsibility to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”
“Duke is uniquely positioned to be a changemaker and have a key role in accelerating our ability to put solutions to climate challenges into action. This will require us all working together — not only coming to sit at the same table but actively listening and participating in the conversation.”
“So many brilliant faculty, alums, and students in the Duke community are already working to address climate challenges. As someone who has always been passionate about the importance of civil engineers to the well-being of our society as a whole, it really is a dream come true to come back to Duke, my alma mater that I know and love, and empower engineering leaders of the future.”
“I could not be more thrilled to dig into the complex problems of the future — think creatively about what expertise we need at the table — and collaborate with the diverse expertise of the Duke community and our partners.”
Assistant Professor of History
Ph.D. New York University, 2019
Matthew Shutzer is an environmental historian of South Asia and the post-colonial world whose research demonstrates how unresolved historical conflicts over property rights affect issues of environmental and climate justice today.
“It’s exciting to join Duke at a time of rapid expansion of climate-focused programming and student and faculty involvement in the wider climate movement. Both the History Department and the Nicholas School have strong foundations in studying the environment through the lens of global politics and history.”
“It’s an exciting course because it allows students to reframe fossil fuels … as something deeply tied to contingent, human-made histories of energy, infrastructure, and social power”
“Work at Duke is ongoing, with my work contributing to wider university-wide research around climate impacts and environmental change in the global south, specifically. Moreover, Duke is fostering critical humanities-based approaches to reckoning with fossil fuel dependency.”
Shutzer currently teaches a course focused on the development of the global energy system over two centuries. “It’s an exciting course because it allows students to reframe fossil fuels — the primary driver of planetary warming — not as some transhistorical, permanent feature of social life, but as something deeply tied to contingent, human-made histories of energy, infrastructure, and social power. This means that these energy systems are fundamentally subject to change, if we know how to analyze them correctly, and think collectively about their future transformation.”
In collaboration with his new environmental history colleagues, Shutzer hopes to “build out a Duke environmental history concentration that puts environmental and global justice at the center of our field.”
Assistant Professor in Marine Science and Conservation
B.S. University of Miami, 2012 · Ph.D. University of California Santa Barbara, 2019
A global change biologist from Southern California, Wong first developed a love for the ocean at a young age while fishing with her father and grew to deeply appreciate sustainability and the dynamic relationship between the ocean and people.
“Coastal communities benefit from many marine ecosystem services but are also at the front lines of experiencing the detrimental impacts of climate change on our oceans. In just the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed mass mortalities of sea urchins, widespread coral bleaching on reefs, and dramatic reductions in kelp forests. Although events such as these can be disheartening, I remain confident that we can take actions to conserve marine organisms and their environments.”
“I am particularly interested in applying this work to restoration and aquaculture by exploring tools and methods we can use to promote resilience to climate change.”
Wong’s research uses “a combination of physiological and molecular approaches to investigate how organism-environment interactions affect ecological and evolutionary processes in marine systems.”
By examining organisms under simulated current and future ocean conditions, she can “explore their response mechanisms, which allows us to better predict the effects of climate change and guide conservation practices. I am particularly interested in applying this work to restoration and aquaculture by exploring tools and methods we can use to promote resilience to climate change.”
“As a new member of the Duke faculty, I look forward to building connections and collaborations that will expand the impact of my research. I am also eager to grow the impact of my work as an educator. Addressing climate change requires many people with many areas of expertise tackling many aspects of this complex issue.” Wong’s goal is to “teach and train the next generation of students who are enthusiastic about rising to this challenge.”
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2023 State of the Duke Climate Commitment
One year into this initiative, we report on the programming, events and funding opportunities that have furthered Duke’s actions toward a resilient, flourishing, carbon-neutral world. In the year since the Climate Commitment’s launch, and following $36 million in inaugural gifts, work across all parts of campus has helped Duke leverage its proven expertise across five pillars to ensure our work has local, global and regional impact.