Celebrating 10 Years of BEES With Department Head David Velinsky, PhD
By Sarah Hojsak
January 12, 2023
As the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere, the Academy of Natural Sciences’ affiliation with Drexel University is a relatively new part of its history—the partnership was formed in 2011, nearly 200 years after its 1812 founding. But a lot has happened in the last decade, for the Academy and especially for the new department that was formed as a result of this affiliation.
The Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) offers undergraduate programs in environmental science, environmental studies and sustainability and geoscience, as well as masters and PhD programs in ecology, evolution and earth systems. Students in the BEES department work alongside world-renowned faculty from Drexel and the Academy, conducting research in onsite labs, completing hands-on fieldwork across the globe and learning from the Academy’s vast collections.
The partnership with the Academy is what makes the BEES program unique, according to David Velinsky, PhD, department head and professor of biodiversity, earth and environmental science and senior scientist with the Academy's Patrick Center for Environmental Research. Few universities have the kind of relationship with a research organization that Drexel has with the Academy, and the collaboration helps both entities flourish. Read more about the history of the BEES department, how it has grown over the last 10 years and its many success stories in the Q&A below.
How was the BEES department established?
After the agreement was signed and we became the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, researchers at the Academy came together with faculty members already here on campus and we created the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science in 2012. We considered how to position our department to make it different from environmental science programs at other universities. We wanted to give our students as much fieldwork experience as possible, because we thought that would best position them for the future. For many of the scientists in the department, fieldwork was a major component of their own research, so we wanted our students to experience that, too. We created a curriculum that provides a lot of hands-on opportunity for the students—in the lab, in the Academy’s collections and in the field.
What has the partnership allowed you to do that you weren’t able to before?
One of the main things that it does for me and the faculty is to have students throughout our research and our programs. We teach classes and provide educational knowledge, but we also have the students in our research labs, doing projects and working on studies. When I started at the Academy in 1995, we were working on our own. It was pretty quiet. Now there are students all over the place, and that that has really made a difference. For me personally, my goals have shifted. My goal now is to see the success of our students as they go through classes, graduate, get good jobs and go to graduate school.
We have so many success stories. Students like PhD candidate Lena Champlin have written books on climate change. Geoscience alum Nicholas Barber '18 got a full scholarship to Cambridge for graduate school and earned his PhD. Another student, because of her work in the Academy’s collections, got a job at the American Museum of Natural History and has now moved on to a PhD program in sustainability. Alexis Wiley '22 gave the University convocation address last year. Akilah Chapman '22 got a Fulbright fellowship to go to Cambodia. And there are many more!
The department’s motto is “Field Experience, Early and Often.” Why is field experience so important for students?
Having that field component in their background gives students an advantage for the jobs or research they may pursue in the future. A lot of universities have environmental science or ecology programs, but we take students out into the field during the first class they take. Our classes give them a hands-on example of what ecology and environmental science are like, as opposed to just that of a book. Students learn how to properly collect fish, how to sample a salt marsh or tidal marsh, how to evaluate a stream habitat. Our students go all over the place for their co-ops. The Academy hires 20 to 25 co-ops a year, and others have worked everywhere from PECO to the Environmental Protection Agency. One of our students found a co-op saving pangolins in Vietnam. It’s one thing to read or talk about something, but another to actually go out and experience it firsthand. Field experience really does make a difference in how you perceive what you're doing at work.
How has the program changed over the last 10 years?
We’ve grown a lot. We're growing now—we’re currently in the process of hiring new faculty members. The student body has expanded. When we first started, there were maybe 25 environmental science majors, and there might have been three or four graduate students. Now we have 173 undergraduate and 27 graduate students. We're at a good point, but I’d like to see even more growth.
What are your goals for the future?
Now that we're 10 years out, we want to see how we can position ourselves better for the students of today. This science now is not the same as it was a decade ago, and neither are the students. We want to provide a richer academic experience by revitalizing our curriculum to reflect today’s issues—climate change, sustainability, environmental justice—and to show students that we can all make a difference in how our environment works and how we can enhance it. I’d like to see the department as a center point within the university for some of these issues. Our students are really active in various forms of outreach and social justice issues, which is great to see, and I would never have thought of that 10 years ago. Our students take things into their own hands and show up as a community, and I’d like to help cultivate that.