IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Institute Spotlight: INSTAAR
Encompassing a strong source of vitality, the institutes at CU-Boulder foster highly specialized environments while creating exclusive and exciting educational experiences for faculty and students. In this series, we survey these integral units that seek to support a wide range of research endeavors and address important, real-world concerns. Part five of this series features the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.
At the core of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) boils an aspiration to both uncover and communicate processes concerning Earth's environmental systems – matters that have gained considerable force in the public sphere over the past decade. "Human beings are not a small part of the environment anymore," Interim Director Jim White said. "We are a key component, and we see it as necessary to get that message out."
As CU's oldest institute, INSTAAR's traditional focus was high-latitude and high-altitude regions because of their sensitivity to environmental change. However, the institute has broadened its geographic focus due to its range of interdisciplinary research, which includes studies of human and ecosystem ecology, biogeochemistry, landscape evolution, oceanography and climate. "Research institutes have led the way in making it very easy, if not downright fun, to cross over disciplinary boundaries at CU," White said. "That has set us up for success."
The National Science Foundation currently ranks CU third in the country in terms of federal funding allotted to environmental science research units, White said. The institute loosely divides its members into three research groups: ecosystems, geophysics and past global change. The research unit equally promotes collaboration among the areas of study as well
"INSTAAR and a number of its members are known worldwide for making observations—by that I mean producing high-quality analytical data—on the environment that have extraordinary impact and influence in the field," Associate Director Alan Townsend said.
Townsend, whose main research background is in tropical ecosystems, said it is important to recognize that INSTAAR's research extends beyond what the institute's name would suggest. "I've always felt very welcome and had my career thrive here, despite the fact that if you looked on paper you might not think it would be the right fit," he said. "The culture and approach here are global in scope, meaning many people can fit in successfully."
The institute administers an abundance of research laboratories and facilities, such as the Mountain Research Station, the Atmospheric Research Laboratory and the Stable Isotope Laboratory, as well as an affiliation with the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research program.
Recent INSTAAR research endeavors include monitoring shrinking ice caps in the Canadian Arctic; establishing a Critical Zone Observatory in the Boulder Creek Watershed to determine the effects of weathering and erosion; and studying how arsenic is produced in drinking water in Bangladesh.
Beyond pursuing natural and physical science research, INSTAAR also works to determine ways to effectively convey its messages to the public by engaging policymakers, businesses and community members. "INSTAAR is in the business of not only documenting environmental change, but also of both trying to communicate those changes and to think about solving them," Townsend said.
White added that INSTAAR has a responsibility to ensure that research is both communicated and utilized promptly. "We constantly find ourselves in a position of being policy relevant, and we can't back away from that," he said.
The institute incorporates a community outreach component by connecting with area schools to organize tours and educational activities and by encouraging INSTAAR members to speak publicly, White said.
INSTAAR also offers research opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students at the university to encourage participation in interdisciplinary research and education. Roughly 60 graduate students currently work at the institute, helping to conduct a wide range of research.
Presently, the institute is working to establish a partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey and also organizing a program plan for a new building on East Campus. INSTAAR will also host the 38th Annual International Arctic Workshop, March 5-7, 2008, an event open to the public. "I think higher education has a huge responsibility to help guide society toward sustainability, and that is ultimately what INSTAAR is all about," White said. "We don't pretend to do it all. We would just like to do our part as well as we can."
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