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An Educator's Perspective

Colleen Kearns has worked with Cornell researchers and students to promote discovery and learning in the biological sciences for over thirty years. She is currently the Program Manager for Cornell’s Environment and Sustainability Major. When we asked her to share thoughts on how learning about the environment at Cornell has developed over the years, Colleen presented us with what she has called a “Cornell Lifer’s Perspective.”

Colleen Kearns

I began my Cornell scientific career in 1988 in what was then the Department of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture (FOH for those who remember) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Over my 23 years of Cornell research, I worked in the plant sciences, aquatic ecology, evolution and molecular biology. The best part of my research career was spent in the field, locally and globally, studying how ecosystems work and measuring organismal responses to the environment. I have had the good fortune to work with Cornell undergraduates for over 30 years, first in the lab and field, then in the undergraduate biology major, and now in the Environment & Sustainability (E&S) major in the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Arts & Sciences. I love coming to work every day. Cornell is a stimulating environment, even after 32 years. The enthusiasm of students continually enriches all of us who work with them.

Colleen Kearns and Nelson Hairston, Jr.
Colleen Kearns (L) and Professor Nelson Hairston, Jr. (R), Onondaga Lake collecting sediment cores by SCUBA, 1995.

What has changed in the span of over thirty years? Are students today the same or different from past Cornell students in the life sciences?

In one way students have not changed; they are almost invariably polite and appreciative of help from their mentors. However, one big change is that science is no longer done solely because of intellectual curiosity, or just for science’s sake. The complexities of modern problems of environment and human health require interdisciplinary efforts, now more than ever. It is imperative that science also contributes to the public good through engaged science outreach, community-based research and service-learning. Our grant funding agencies demand it. Big data, artificial intelligence, and genomics are examples of modern fields of inquiry advancing our understanding of how the world works. We have powerful predictive models to help us protect and manage natural resources. These advances bring deep ethical considerations for which there are no clear-cut answers.

Kearns 3
Professor James G. Needham and Miss Ross, his teaching assistant, with students in the late 1920s. From JGN papers, archived in Cornell University Library’s Rare and Manuscript Collections. For more on Professor Needham and his students, go to the Mann online exhibit "Inland Waters" (

Cornell was founded on Ezra’s mantra of “any person, any field of study” and our history shows a diverse community of student scholars. As a community, we must all strive to work to the best of our ability, to critically evaluate information and communicate effectively about our fields. Current students, from all disciplines, continue to have passion for making the world a better place as they have for all my thirty years. But that passion is now more highly focused on social and environmental justice.

We need every discipline and every voice working on climate issues. On Earth Day 2016, 120 countries including the U.S. signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to aggressively combat global warming. The planet is in crisis but there is still time to make a difference. The COVID pandemic has offered us a striking demonstration of climate resilience. The world shelter-in-place response has permitted lower greenhouse gas emissions and clearer urban skies and waterways. We must adhere to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The life of the planet depends on it. Our quality of life depends on it.

Colleen Kearns

Program Manager

Cornell Environment & Sustainability (E&S) Major