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Chris Neill receives congratulations from Phyllis Rosenthal, Brown President Ruth Simmons and Charles Rosenthal upon being named Rosenthal Director of the Brown-MBL Partnership. (Photo: Hugh Ducklow)

Chris Neill Named Rosenthal Director of Brown-MBL Partnership

Ecosystems Center Senior Scientist Christopher Neill has been named Rosenthal Director of the Brown-MBL Partnership. Neill’s directorship is sponsored by an endowment of more than $2 million established by MBL Trustee and Brown Trustee Emeritus Charles Rosenthal and his wife, Phyllis.

The expanded partnership is aimed at generating new joint research opportunities, strengthening graduate education, and enriching academic offerings across the two institutions. The partnership builds upon a joint Brown-MBL Ph.D. program launched in 2003.

In addition to Neill, four MBL scientists, including Jim Tang and Joe Vallino from the Ecosystems Center, will hold joint faculty appointments at Brown. They will teach advanced level classes, advise graduate students, and spearhead joint research projects. Eighteen students are currently enrolled in the Brown-MBL Graduate Program in Biological and Environmental Science. Three students completed their Ph.D.s in late 2009, including Yawei Luo and Gillian Galford, whose research was conducted at the Ecosystems Center.

The expanded partnership will focus on three key scientific themes: ecosystems, environmental health, and microbiomes—populations of microbes that play key roles in the environment and thehuman body . While Brown and MBL researchers have collaborated on projects since the inception of the joint graduate program seven years ago, the new partnership aims to foster additional research collaborations among scientists at both institutions as well as to offer additional educational opportunities for students at all levels. A principal goal of the partnership is to further introduce Brown graduate and undergraduate students to MBL scientists through enhanced course offerings and research opportunities in these targeted areas of research.

At the recent dedication of the Rosenthal Directorshop, Neill said, “I accept this job with great enthusiasm and great optimism. It’s a rare opportunity that one gets to work in this way for two institutions of such quality for which I feel such affection—and to get to do that at the same time!”

“What’s absolutely clear is that it’s the partnership that drives better, more creative science, and that this next level of creativity will help us to build new and exciting research programs,” said Neill. "I believe that this synergy will allow the Brown-MBL program not only to carve out new science niches—but to shape new and expanding fields of science."

"For example, an area where we are poised for great success is in studying coupled human and natural systems to address the great global problems of our time. For example, the powerful emerging economies of China and India are now reshaping the earth by driving trade in agricultural products. As an example, take the flow of soybeans from Brazil to China. That’s something I know because I work on the consequences of growing soybeans on waters of the Amazon. Soybeans drives the clearing of forest, development of roads and dams that affect fisheries and might at some threshold alter rainfall. It also drives the distribution of land and income, the migration of people and their access to fresh water, their exposure to dust and toxic chemicals. Most studies tackle just pieces of this—by combining the large scale ecology, modeling and remote sensing with expertise in demography, urban migration and human environmental health, we can look at these forces in new ways. And through structures such as the Watson Institute, can convey this information to policymakers."

Neill studies how changes in land use and other human activities alter the structure of ecosystems. His research in the Amazon investigates the ecological consequences of deforestation and the rapid expansion of soybean cultivation. He also works on the ecology and restoration of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in coastal Massachusetts, where rapid increases in residential development threaten ecosystems that contain high and unique biological diversity.. Recently he has served as course director for the polar section of the MBL Logan Science Journalism Program, taking journalists to both the Arctic and Antarctic in 2009.

Chris Neill has been at the Ecosystems Center since 1991, when he joined the staff as postdoctoral scientist. He was graduated from Cornell University and received both his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was named senior scientist at the Ecosystem Center earlier this year. In 2007, Neill was a Fulbright scholar in residence at University of São Paulo, Piracicaba. He is presently serving as Bullard Fellow in Amazon Ecology at Harvard University’s field station in Petersham, Massachusetts.