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Keeping the Promise: McLachlan and McKee

April 5, 2005

Tulanian Staff
Michael DeMocker

John McLachlan, Director of Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities: I have been at Tulane for almost 10 years but I still feel like a new guy. It's not just because this wonderful city I have adopted is so old and well-established or that you have to live here all your life to be "from" here. It's more that living in New Orleans and working at Tulane provide a new experience for me each day, rife with excitement, full of surprises.

tulspr_05_mclachlan_1Our center's interest and impact are international in scope, but the rich historical, cultural, and environmental context of New Orleans and its surrounding region informs all our work. We take a "bench to bayou" approach, using what's in our backyard as a natural laboratory.

My research on the molecular biology of sex hormones comes to life in the context of the Mississippi River and the chemicals and hormones that abound.

Through the beauty of interdisciplinary studies at Tulane, we can tackle issues all at once from molecules to ecosystems to the communities that depend on them. We think globally and act locally. It is not unusual to have a student in my lab working on the molecular mechanisms of estrogen action in fish right alongside a student working on estrogen and breast cancer in women. More and more universities and federal research establishments value interdisciplinary approaches to science, and I am grateful that Tulane is one of them.

Dialogue across schools and departments is always interesting and lively. Tulane has been a great home for my eclectic approach to research and thinking. Supported by an endowed chair (the Celia Scott and Albert J. Weatherhead III Distinguished Professorship in Environmental Studies) and serving as director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research, I have been given the chance to "push the envelope" toward a whole new way to communicate.

This is perhaps best evidenced by something called RiverSphere, where art, science and technology meet. RiverSphere has been developing for the past five years with a group of colleagues in our center, as well as other schools and colleges at Tulane. We are designing a place where artists and philosophers and engineers and dancers and computer geeks and molecular biologists and biogeochemists and business people will work with architects and city planners and chemists and public health professionals to study and celebrate all things river-related. They will solve big problems concerning renewable energy, clean water, urban design and culture.

My colleagues at Tulane from the president down have played active roles in this plan, creating what we always strive for but seldom achieve -- an academic community. As a community, we can work with the city and the region in ways only now beginning to be realized. At what other university could an entrepreneurial professor (who didn't even know that's what he was) get the guidance, collaboration and support to dream so big? Here at Tulane the excitement and surprises keep on coming. 

Brent McKee, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Director of Tulane Center for River-Ocean Studies: I love to teach, so I came to Tulane looking forward to the challenges and rewards of guiding bright, energetic students and I have not been disappointed. I also love my research and when I arrived here seven years ago, I knew all about the university's distinguished academic tradition and I had heard about promising signs of resurgence in the natural sciences at Tulane.

tulspr_05_mckee_1However, it was not these things alone that attracted me to Tulane. There was another factor, located only a few blocks west of the uptown campus -- the river. The Mississippi is one of the great major rivers of the world, and to have it so close was very important.

Perhaps you can tell that major rivers are more than a research subject to me. They have been a lifelong passion. Tulane has done a wonderful job using the river as a unifying theme for the university's entire academic experience. My interest in research related to major world rivers and adjacent coastal areas fits in nicely.

I certainly agree with Leonardo da Vinci -- rivers are to the Earth's surface what blood is to our bodies. Rivers are the active interface between land and ocean. They carry materials that are eroded from mountain tops and deliver them to the ocean, thousands of miles away, in a form that maintains and nourishes fragile coastal environments. Major river systems serve as a central link between human activities and global change. They are wondrous things. Rivers are often used as a metaphor for change, transformation and renewal.

During my years at Tulane, it has been a very apt metaphor for what I have witnessed. The geology department has risen like a phoenix out of the ashes and has been reshaped to become a vibrant new department with a new name -- Earth and Environmental Sciences. Research and graduate studies have grown tremendously and continue to improve in quality.

It is an exciting time to be at Tulane. We established the Tulane Center for River- Ocean Studies in 2003, and it is quickly gaining recognition for its leadership in defining a new paradigm for understanding major river systems, as well as for our faculty's active riverocean research programs. There have been challenges and growing pains, and we continue to struggle to assemble a critical mass and to build the infrastructure necessary to be nationally prominent.

However, the future holds much promise. It's my belief that in the near future students and researchers will come to Tulane to study major rivers and associated coastal regions just as they go to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to learn the culinary arts or to the Arecibo Observatory to study the stars. I think it is within our grasp. One more thing, while I'm on the subject of Tulane visions.

I'm looking forward to celebrating a College World Series championship for Tulane baseball in the very near future. Baseball is another thing that I am passionate about. So, is it a coincidence that we are building a worldclass river research program at Tulane where we also have one of the best college baseball programs on the planet? I think the river gods and the baseball gods have been talking.

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