Q&A with Director Rebecca Kelly

Where did you work before you came to Hopkins?

From 2001 to 2015, I was a faculty member in the Environmental Studies Department at Sweet Briar College in central Virginia. It is a women’s liberal arts college with a huge campus in a beautiful rural area, so it was a great place to teach environmental science. Because the college is so small, it is the kind of place where you really get to know your students well and to work with colleagues in all different disciplines, and I really enjoyed that. I also got a chance to wear a number of different hats there, including being department chair and chairing the Academic Planning Committee, leading curriculum change, promoting environmental stewardship with the college administration, etc. For the 2015-16 academic year, I taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

What drew you to teaching? What do you like most about it?

As a student, I was always fascinated with teaching and learning. I grew up in a family of teachers and college professors, so it seemed like a natural choice for a profession and one I felt drawn toward. I love almost every aspect of teaching, from curriculum and course design to working with students in the classroom, lab, and field. In every course, I do my best to make the experience fun, interesting, meaningful, and useful. I really enjoy helping students develop academically throughout their four years as undergraduates and seeing them launch out into the world to do great things. The only part about teaching that I don’t like is grading.

What do you see are the GECS program’s strengths?

The major is very rigorous and broad-based with a strong set of core courses. All students are required to take courses like calculus, chemistry, and microeconomics to gain a solid foundation in the natural and social sciences. But it is also flexible enough to allow students to focus on their area of particular interest when it comes to electives. As an interdisciplinary major, it prepares students for a wide range of career options, and I think that is important. A lot of students come to college not knowing exactly what they want to do for a career, and that’s just fine. Choosing a major like GECS gives them a chance to explore their interests and figure out what they are passionate about while leaving their options fairly open when it comes to jobs and further schooling.

For those students who want to go on to a master’s degree, the BA/MS option with JHU’s Environmental Sciences and Policy program is a great opportunity. They can get a jump start by applying a couple of their undergraduate GECS courses to the master’s and finish both degrees in as little as five or five-and-a-half years.

So many of our students double major and minor. What other courses of study do our students pair with GECS?

At this point, a third of our majors have a second major, and 15% have a minor. The most popular double major is with Public Health Studies, but others include International Studies, Economics, Environmental Engineering, and Writing Seminars. A number of students majoring in these and other fields also choose to minor in GECS.

What is your area of research? What projects are you working on?

My doctorate is in geology, and my area of expertise is surface processes, particularly river systems and sediment erosion. I’ve always been fascinated with learning to read the history of a landscape from its landforms and vegetation. But as a teaching professor at JHU, my main focus at this point is teaching and overseeing the GECS program, so I am now engaged in a couple pedagogical research projects. One is looking at the value of place-based journal writing in cultivating a sense of connection to the environment. Another, just in the planning stages at this point, investigates the value of teaching students meditation and breathing techniques in a regular academic course as a way to help them focus and deal with stress.

As the new director, what are your goals for the GECS program?

Right now we’re working on further strengthening the curriculum to streamline the major requirements and to make the program easier to assess. We want to make certain that we are doing an excellent job educating students to be leaders in the environmental field, and we need assessment data to guide that process. We’re also working on ways to expand our students’ opportunities to study environmental issues across the country and around the world, including developing our own summer courses and cultivating connections with existing study abroad programs outside the university that focus on environmental issues.