Fuel For Thought

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hillJason Hill wants to put the puzzle pieces in place.

He started his academic career studying evolution and genetics, did his graduate work in plant biology and his postdoc in applied economics, and today is an associate professor in the bioproducts and biosystems engineering department, where he recently led creation of a new undergraduate major in sustainable systems management.

“Evolutionary biology tells the most amazing story—the story of life—and I got into it at a time when new tools were available to allow us to disentangle the complex relationships among species,” Hill (Ph.D.–'04, plant biological sciences) says. “We were finding out that in many cases what people had long believed about these relationships was completely wrong.

“I was interested in the history of life, but I also realized that simply knowing this story doesn’t necessarily make the world a better place, nor does it address the big challenges facing our world today,” he says of his journey across academic disciplines. “Tackling global challenges requires us to work across disciplines, integrating knowledge from different fields and ways of interpreting it. We need to consider whole systems.”

His research has sometimes challenged the status quo in agriculture. “Many involved in agriculture have deep financial and political interests, and it’s important for us as academics to assess proposed solutions independently and without constraint,” he says. “There are over 7 billion people, and each one of us has a right to pursue a higher standard of living, and that requires resources. Supplying our needs as well as our wants is a big challenge.“

The new sustainability systems management major trains students to address those big challenges. “It integrates the physical sciences, social sciences, engineering, math, statistics, business and management. It prepares students to enter the workforce with an understanding of the important global challenges and the skills to tackle them. It’s for students who want to make a more sustainable future a reality.”

His interdisciplinary approach is necessary for understanding the complexity of the world we live in and the complicated effects of the decisions we make every day, he says. “The goal is to give people a better life and to protect what we have, through sustainable food and energy.”

- Becky Beyers