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Environmental Science at AU

Students and professor, wearing gloves and holding a bucket, work outside in a lake

Our Masters and undergrad BA and BS programs train students to become effective advocates for the environment. The curriculum consists of rigorous science- and policy-based courses and experiential learning that prepare our students for exciting careers in the environmental field. The Department of Environmental Science recommits itself to advancing informed, knowledge-based approaches to confronting local and global environmental concerns.

All humans depend on the Earth for survival, creating a universal interest in understanding and protecting it. Solving complex environmental problems requires diverse perspectives and ways of knowing. Yet, most of the history of environmental science and allied fields has excluded and marginalized people based on their race, socioeconomic status, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other characteristics. Moreover, environmental science has also caused harm through extractive research practices and research that has promoted harmful, and wrong, ideas towards marginalized people.

In the AU Environmental Science Department, we recognize that environmental scientists, scholars and activists must be representative and inclusive of humanity in all its diversity. We also strive to confront the harmful history of our discipline, put science in the appropriate context, and avoid making the same mistakes again.

People are drawn to our field of study for myriad reasons: love of the outdoors, passion for environmental justice, and an interest in solving complicated, interdisciplinary problems, to name a few. All these motivations are valid. Whatever has brought you here, it is our goal to create a welcoming space for you in our department, where you can flourish academically and personally.

Here is an overview of what our department is doing to promote diversity and inclusion:

ENVS Courses

Additionally, many of our classes cover environmental justice topics. These include:

AU Core Classes

  • ENVS 150: The Nature of Earth
  • Complex Problems classes: Pollution Solutions, Facing Climate Change, Maxing Out Planet Earth

Majors’ and Graduate Classes

  • ENVS 160: Biodiversity and Ecosystems
  • ENVS 220: Energy and Resources
  • ENVS 260: Energy and Pollution
  • ENVS 324: Environmental Health
  • ENVS 470/670: Water Resources

Our Community: Sustainability


See some of the ways AU and CAS students and faculty pursue sustainability.

Selected Publications

(* denotes student author)

Kolowski, J. M., C. Wolfer, M. McDaniels, A. Williams, and J. B. C. Harris. 2023. High-resolution GPS Tracking of American Kestrels Reveals Breeding and Post-breeding Ranging Behavior in Northern Virginia, USA. Journal of Raptor Research 57:1–19.

Williams, Claire GA history of the Lost Pines told from the diplohaplontic view (invited book chapter), 2023.

Doglioni, G., Aquila, V., Das, S., Colarco, P. R., and Zardi, D.: Dynamical perturbation of the stratosphere by a pyrocumulonimbus injection of carbonaceous aerosols, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 22, 11049–11064,, 2022.

Burch, E.*, Culver, D. C.Alonzo, M., & Malloy, E. J. (2022). Landscape features and forest maturity promote the occurrence of macroinvertebrates specialized for seepage springs in urban forests in Washington, DC. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.

R. Binte Sharif, P. Houser, V. Aquila, V. Maggioni, Investigating Rainfall Patterns in the Hubei Province, China and Northern Italy During the COVID-19 lockdowns. Front. Clim. (2022)

Balestra, B., Rose, T., Fehrenbacher, J., Knobelspiesse, K., Huber, B, Godding, T., Paytan, A. (2021). In situ Mg/Ca measurements on foraminifera: comparison between Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) and Wavelength-Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy by electron probe microanalyzer (EPMA). Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 22, e2020GC009449.

Colin P. Casey*, Matthew R. Hartings, Melissa A. Knapp*, Elizabeth J. Malloy, and Karen L. Knee. 2022. Characterizing the association between oil and gas development and water quality at a regional scale. Freshwater Science 41(2): 236-252.

MacAvoy Stephen E, Lunine Alex*. 2022. Anthropogenic influences on an urban river: differences in cations and nutrients along an urban/suburban transect. Water 14:1330

Climate Change, Science, and The Politics of Shared Sacrifice by Todd Eisenstadt and Stephen MacAvoy.Professor Stephen Macavoy co-authors Climate Change, Science, and the Politics of Shared Sacrifice with qualitative, quantitative, and hands-on methods for empowering students to investigate and take action.

Sinigalliano, C., Kim, K., Gidley, M., Yuknavage, K., Knee, K., Palacios, D., Bautista, C., Bonacolta, A., Lee, H.W. and Maurin, L., 2021. Microbial Source Tracking of Fecal Indicating Bacteria in Coral Reef Waters, Recreational Waters, and Groundwater of Saipan by Real-Time Quantitative PCR. Frontiers in Microbiology11, p.3486.

Selected Faculty Awards

Mike Alonzo received a grant from Oceana for the project “ARTIS analysis of DWF and FMFO.”

Valentina Aquila received a grant from Michigan Technological University for $66,476 for the project “Tracking volcanic volatiles from magma reservoir to the atmosphere: identifying precursors and optimizing models and satellite observations for future major. 

Valentina Aquila received a $12,000 grant from National Academies for “The Impact of Airport Activity on Local Air Quality.”

David Culver received a $29,917 grant from the National Park Service for the project “The Amphipod Fauna of Seepage Springs in National Capital Parks East.”

Valentina Aquila received an $85,388 grant from NASA for the project “Estimating the impacts of volcanic aerosol and pyroCb smoke on model forecasts and data assimilation using the GEOS Analysis Increments.”

Steve MacAvoy received a $17,000 grant from the Cave Conservancy of the Virginias for “Assessing seep amphipod and isopod resilience to environmental warming by metabolic plasticity proxy.”

Karen Knee and collaborators at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Washington State University–Vancouver were recently awarded a 3-year, $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from trees.

Mike Alonzo is funded by the National Science Foundation to study how heat and urbanization affect tree physiology.

Barbara Balestra was awarded an AU Deputy Provost & Dean of Faculty’s Pilot Grant for the proposal “Effects of biofilm biodiversity and biomass on microplastics in the Potomac River” (Spring 2022), which she is working on with MS student Joe Barnes and BS student Natalie Landaverde.

Jessica Gephart was awarded a $785,000 NSF grant to develop a global seafood trade network database for sustainable food systems, human health, and nutrition security.

Kiho Kim is co-PI on a $300,000 NSF grant to develop enhanced teaching and learning through problem-based pedagogy. Karen Knee and Barbara Balestra are also participating in this research, which partially focuses on our Habits of Mind class, ENVS 150 (the Nature of Earth). 

Kiho Kim is co-PI on a $800,000 NSF grant entitled “Noyce Scholar Retention in Racially and Culturally Non-dominant Communities: Partnerships and Persistence” 

Karen Knee and collaborators at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Washington State University–Vancouver were recently awarded a 3-year, $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from trees.

Steve MacAvoy was awarded a $15,000 USGS/WRRI grant to explore how concrete influences the chemistry of suburban streams.  

Sauleh Siddiqui and Kiho Kim are part of the team of researchers recently awarded a five-year, $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Titled "Multiscale Resilient, Equitable, and Circular Innovations with Partnership and Education Synergies (RECIPES) for Sustainable Food Systems,” the project will study food waste and work toward sustainability and equity in food systems under the leadership of AU principle investigator, Siddiqui.


Halpern BS, Frazier M, Verstaen J, Rayner PE, Clawson G, Blanchard JL, Cottrell RS, Froehlich HE, Gephart JA, Jacobsen NS, Kuempel CD. Et al. The environmental footprint of global food production. Nature Sustainability. 2022 Oct 24:1-3.

Knapp, M.A., N. Geeraert, K. Kim, and K.L. Knee. 2020. Submarine Groundwater Discharge (SGD) to Coastal Waters of Saipan (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, USA): Implications for Nitrogen Sources, Transport and Ecological Effects. Water 12(11): 3029.

Kroetz, K, GM Luquec, JA Gephart, SL. Jardine, P Lee, K Chicojay Moore, C Cole, A Steinkruger, and CJ Donlan (2020) Consequences of seafood mislabeling for marine populations and fisheries management. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

Davis, KF, S Downs and JA Gephart (2020) Environmental variability and food supply chains: Building resilience into global and local food systems Nature Food, pp. 1-12.White, ER, HE Froehlich, JA Gephart, RS Cottrell, TA Branch, R Agrawal Bejarano and JK Baum (2020) Early effects of COVID‐19 on US fisheries and seafood consumption. Fish and Fisheries.

Shepon, A, JA Gephart, PJG Henriksson, R Jones, K Murshed-e-Jahan, G Eshel and CD Golden (2020) Reorientation of aquaculture production systems can reduce environmental impacts and improve nutrition security in Bangladesh. Nature Food, 1(10), pp.640-647. Alonzo, M., Dial, R. J., Schulz, B. K., Andersen, H. E., Lewis-Clark, E., Cook, B. D., & Morton, D. C. (2020).

Mapping tall shrub biomass in Alaska at landscape scale using structure-from-motion photogrammetry and lidar. Remote Sensing of Environment, 245, 111841. Bistline, John ET, Maxwell Brown, Sauleh A. Siddiqui, and Kathleen Vaillancourt. "Electric sector impacts of renewable policy coordination: A multi-model study of the North American energy system." Energy Policy 145 (2020): 111707. 

Dumnicka, E., T. Pipan, and D.C. Culver. 2020. Habitats and diversity of subterranean macroscopic freshwater invertebrates: main gaps and future trends. Water 11:2170. Doi:10.3390/w12082170.

Eisenstadt, Todd and MacAvoy, Stephen. in production. Climate Change, Science, and the Politics of Shared Sacrifice. Oxford University Press. Final draft submitted 7/10/2020. expected publication date: 1/2021

Fong, D.W. 2019. Gammarus minus as a model system for the study of evolution.  In: pp. 451-458, D.C. Culver and W.B. White (eds.), Encyclopedia of Caves, 3rd Edition.  Elsevier Academic Press, Burlington, Massachusetts.

Geeraert N, NM Duprey, S McIlroy, PD Thompson, BR Goldstein, C LaRoche, K Kim, LJ Raymundo & DM Baker. 2020. The anthropogenic nitrogen footprint of a tropical lagoon: spatial variability in Padina δ15N. Pacific Science 74:19-29

Gephart, JA, CD Golden, F Asche, B Belton, C Brugere, HE Froehlich, JP Fry, BS Halpern, CC Hicks, RC Jones, DH Klinger, DC Little, DJ McCauley, SH Thilsted, M Troell and EH Allison (2020) Scenarios for global aquaculture and its role in human nutrition. Reviews in Fisheries Science & Aquaculture, pp.1-17.

Keany, J., M. Christman, M. Milton, K.L. Knee, H. Gilbert, and D. Culver. (2019) Distribution and structure of shallow subterranean aquatic arthropod communities in the parklands of Washington, D.C. Ecohydrology 12(1): e2044. 

Knee, K.L. and A. Masker. (2019) Association between unconventional oil and gas (UOG) development and water quality in small streams overlying the Marcellus Shale. Freshwater Science 38(1) 113-130. 

Kwon MJ, D Baker, C Tudge, K Kim, SE MacAvoy. (2018). Museum collections yield information on nitrogen sources for coastal Gulf of Mexico, North Carolina and Caribbean invertebrates 1850 to 2004. Journal of Shellfish Research 37(5):1-7.

Pipan, T., M.C. Christman, and D.C. Culver. 2020. Abiotic community constraints in extreme environments: epikarst copepods as a model system. Diversity 12:269. Doi:10.3390/d120/12071269.

Read, QD, S Brown, AD Cuéllar, SM Finn, JA Gephart, LT Marston, E Meyer, KA Weitz and MK Muth (2020) Assessing the environmental impacts of halving food loss and waste along the food supply chain. Science of The Total Environment, 712, p.136255.

Siddiqui, Sauleh, Kathleen Vaillancourt, Olivier Bahn, Nadejda Victor, Christopher Nichols, Charalampos Avraam, and Maxwell Brown. "Integrated North American energy markets under different futures of cross-border energy infrastructure." Energy Policy 144 (2020): 111658. 

Wilken RL, A Imanalieva, SE MacAvoy, VP Connaughton. (2020). Anatomical and behavioral assessment of larval zebrafish (Danio rerio) reared in Anacostia River water samples. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

Barbara Balestra received a grant for $12,000 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for her project "Predicting Changes in Ocean Habitability on Earth and Other Ocean Worlds."

Michael Alonzo received a grant for $37,914 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for his work in improving models of forest ecosystem structure and function through fusion of 3D data derived from stereo imagery and lidar.

Sauleh Siddiqui received a $108,130 grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) March 2021

Aquila, Valentina. Tracking Volcanic Volatiles From Magma Reservoir to the Atmosphere: Identifying Precursors and Optimizing Models and Satellite Observations for Future Major Eruptions. Michigan Technological University — $296,026 (3 years)

Alonzo, Michael. (PI) Understanding tree species and site controls on urban transpiration using high resolution spatial analyses. NSF — $416,000 (3 years, 2020 – 2023)

Alonzo, Michael (CO-PI) NASA-USFS Partnership to Advance Operational Forest Carbon Monitoring in Interior Alaska. NASA Carbon Monitoring System — AU portion: $136,000 (3 years, 2020 – 2022).

Aquila, Valentina. (CO-PI): Tracking volcanic gases from magma reservoir to the atmosphere: identifying precursors, and optimizing models and satellite observations for future major eruptions. 2 September 2020 to 11 September 2023. NASA.
Total award: $1,270,000, award for AU: $310K. 

Brakel W, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Science, was elected Chair of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB;, effective 09/01/2020.  He has served on the Commission, representing the District of Columbia, since 2014.

Connaughton, Victoria. (PI). Using zebrafish to assess water health of Paint Branch Stream, an upstream tributary within the Anacostia Watershed”, DC Water Resources Research Institute, 2020-2021. USGS/WRRI. $10,000

Culver, David. (PI). A Survey of the Fauna of Seepage Springs in National Capital Parks-East (NACE). 2018-2022. National Park Service. $137,951. 

Gephardt, Jessica (CO-PI) Title: CNH-L: Interactive Dynamics of Reef Fisheries and Human Health (2018-2022). NSF. Award total:  $1,359,998, award for AU: $219,214. 

Siddiqui, Sauleh. $108,130 grant from National Science Foundation.

Knee, Karen and Kim, Kiho. (PIs). Investigating the role of groundwater in pollutant transport to Nu`uuli Pala Lagoon, American Samoa. NOAA. $161,559.00

MacAvoy, Stephen. (PI). Toxicity of organic contaminants in urban and suburban areas of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. 2020. USGS/WRRI $10,000

MacAvoy, Stephen. (CO-PI). Next-generation effects-based monitoring of contaminants in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. 2020. USGS/WRRI $10,000

Meiller, Jesse and Brody, Michael (CO-PIs). "Central Asia University Partnerships Program" from the American Councils for International Education (State Dept.). January 2020 to June 2021. $22,500.

Siddiqui, Sauleh (PI). Time-Sensitive Human Forest and Model Forecasts for COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Trials (Aug 2020 - Aug 2021). NSF
Amount: $200,000

Siddiqui, Sauleh (PI). Human Forests versus Random Forest Models in Prediction (Sep 2019 - Feb 2022). NSF
Amount: $480,000

Siddiqui, Sauleh (PI). EAGER: SSDIM: Generating Synthetic Data on Interdependent Food, Energy, and Transportation Networks via Stochastic, Bi-level Optimization (Aug 2017-Aug 2021). NSF
Amount: $399,874

Sauleh Siddiqui (Environmental Science) spoke on CNN about why we need to adjust our approach to infrastructure to protect the most vulnerable from climate change.

Sergio Morales (Environmental Science) and Jennah McDonald (Biology), were part of the SEA Semester voyage that discovered good news regarding coral health in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). Their discovery was featured in the New York Times. Accompanied by 21 other undergraduates, SEA Semester faculty, and researchers from the New England Aquarium and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Sergio and Jennah gathered data on the health of the islands' coral reef ecosystem in order to recommend policy implementations to the PIPA management office in Kiribati—all while sailing as active crewmembers aboard a tall ship research vessel.


Teagan Odders in the Reeves Aquatic Center lifeguard stand. Photo by Jeff Watts.

Athletics ·

Is There a Lifeguard on Board?

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Jonathan Craig

Research ·

Student Research on Impacts of Pollution and Climate Change

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Washington Post featured research of Barbara BalestraStephen MacAvoy , and ENVS students on the Anacostia and Potomac River microplastics.

Graduate student Jonathan Craig was profiled by The Eagle about their research on microplastics in the Anacostia River.

AU Prof Mike Alonzo, postdoc Thu Ya Kyaw, Glory Iorliam, and other collaborators, conducting tree measurements.

Prof Mike Alonzo, postdoc Thu Ya Kyaw, graduate student Glory Iorliam, and other collaborators conducting tree measurements at UMBC.

Karen L. Knee spoke with Wired about the dangers of the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus — which is prevalent in hot coastal waters.


Stephen MacAvoy spoke with National Geographic about how to make sense of extreme weather events. 

Prof Valentina Aquila details the wildfire and air quality hazard.

Ashley Hocking was awarded a Udall Scholarship, which she will use to fulfill her dream of studying abroad in Ecuador.

Student Hannah VanWagner pursues sustainability with AU's RECIPES project.

Madeleine Danzberger's team project Biome Builder won the first annual Sustainability Invent-a-thon.

Congratulations to ENVS students Maddie Young, Ashley Hocking, and Kat Raiano. All three have been selected for the American University 2023 Academic Achievement Award for Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Activism.

AU's Mike Alonzo led an NSF-funded project about "how trees respond to heat stress."

ENVS faculty with 2022 CAS Dean's Awards.CAS Dean’s Awards: Jesse Meiller (left) and Sauleh Siddiqui (right) for Exceptional Impact and Karen Knee (middle) for Outstanding Contributions to an Inclusive Community. Kiho Kim received the Outstanding Service to the University Community Award.

Stephanie Braddock completed her MS in Environmental Science and joined the PhD program in Atmospheric Physics at Rutgers. 

Kruttika Gopal (BA Environmental Studies, 2023) was awarded the 2021 Udall scholarship.

Elisa Davey (MS 2022) recently started a full-time position with the EPA, working on biosolids. 

Emily Nguyen (MS 2022) was just hired as a Program Coordinator at Conservation International.

Student Spotlights

Hana Bahlawan

Hana Bahlawan BS Environmental Science '22

Hana Bahlawan is a senior majoring in Environmental Science. She is also a member of the US Air Force ROTC (Lt. Col. AFROTC)! Hana is examining the concentration and distribution of a novel PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) called Bibenzyl which is used in flame retardants, electronics, and textile production. She is looking at both suburban and urban steam sediments that may receive different degrees of sewage input and will test for differences.

Faith Lewis

Faith Lewis BA Environmental Studies and Economics ‘20

As a Student Sustainability Educator, I like finding out what people are interested in, and then catering to those interests. The environment affects everybody, and it's really our job to show people the way in which it affects them. It helps that people are very receptive at AU, so I don't have a hard time engaging with people.

I hope people see the merit of what we’re doing & are inspired to join the fight

Find out how you can get involved with Sustainability at AU.