The College of Natural Resources and Environment is welcoming two new faculty members for the 2021-22 academic year.

Eranga Galappaththi will join the Department of Geography as an assistant professor focusing on the social dimensions of coastal studies. His research considers how Indigenous communities experience and adjust to climate change.

“My broad focus is on understanding human communities and the environment as combined systems,” noted Galappaththi, who received his doctorate in geography from McGill University. “That research includes the consideration of climate change adaptations, environmental governance policy, social and ecological systems, and traditional knowledge systems.”

Galappaththi, who will be an affiliate of the Center for Coastal Studies housed in Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute, has recently focused his research on how Indigenous communities in Sri Lanka and the Canadian Arctic that rely on small-scale fishing are adapting to the challenges of climate change and the ways that understanding that interplay could inform broader considerations of governing natural resources.

“Dr. Galappaththi has an impressive record working from local to global scales,” said Department Chair Tom Crawford. “His local community research impressively complements and informs his global policy work regarding aquaculture, Indigenous fishers, and climate change. He will add to the department’s strengths in coastal science, bringing rich international perspectives that will enable collaborations across the university.”

Galappaththi, who recently contributed to two chapters in the sixth assessment report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, looks forward to working collaboratively with colleagues at Virginia Tech.

“Nowadays, to produce really strong research requires collaboration,” he said. “We no longer have traditional boundaries in academia because real-world problems aren’t aligned into silos of knowledge.”

Galappaththi has mentored numerous graduate and undergraduate students, strengthening the skill sets of aspiring geography majors and including them as co-authors on research publications. He would like to continue this engagement at Virginia Tech by developing a network to mentor students from underrepresented groups.

Elizabeth Hunter joined Virginia Tech in June as an assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and the assistant unit leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Virginia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

“My primary focus is on the conservation of birds and reptiles,” said Hunter, who received her doctorate in forest resources from the University of Georgia. “I do a lot of population and spatial modeling, trying to designate areas of high importance to at-risk or endangered species and determine habitats that are important for maintaining species’ populations.”

As a member of the Virginia Cooperative Unit, Hunter will have the opportunity to apply the science of conservation to real-time challenges in the field.

“What excites me most about this position is that the work is applied,” said Hunter, who has recently published papers on topics as diverse as the impacts of fire management on tortoise populations and how flooding encourages predator-prey interactions in coastal marshes. “We’re working directly on broad-scale problems that affect the long-term persistence of species; we dig into the underlying challenges, trying to find scalable solutions to big issues like climate change and habitat loss.”

Department Head Joel Snodgrass notes that Hunter has a track record of utilizing collaboration as a way to tackle conservation challenges.

“Dr. Hunter’s experience working with both state and federal agencies to address complex environmental challenges will serve her well as she establishes partnerships here in Virginia,” he said. “Her broad expertise in birds and reptiles complements existing strengths in the department and will lead to collaborations within the department and across the college and university.”

One such collaboration is already underway: Hunter has started a project with Assistant Professor Ashley Dayer looking into how sea-level rise will affect coastal marshes from a perspective that considers both the ecological challenges to species like the salt marsh sparrow and the black duck, and the human dimensions that could impact potential solutions.

“I’m the ecologist on the project, looking into how marsh migration onto upland areas could create new habitats for birds,” Hunter explained. “Dr. Dayer is looking at the social aspect and how marsh migration might impact landowners. We need both sides of the equation to protect vulnerable species.”

Funded by a grant from the Center for Coastal Studies, of which Hunter and Dayer are both affiliates, the project represents the kind of work that Hunter views as crucial in linking the research taking place at the university with stakeholders in the broader public.

“It’s important that my research results in management recommendations to the people who are on the ground, trying to make the right decisions with limited data on how those decisions impact species and their ecosystems,” Hunter said.

Written by David Fleming

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