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UF launches Earth Systems Institute to address Florida’s rapid environmental changes

The University of Florida has launched the Thompson Institute for Earth Systems, an outreach-focused center that aims to advance public understanding of the most pressing environmental challenges in Florida and beyond.

TIES will communicate the university’s research discoveries about Earth systems — air, water, land and life — to empower the people of Florida to make more informed decisions about how to preserve and protect natural resources.

“Every one of these spheres is impacting our state in potentially dramatic ways,” Bruce MacFadden, the institute’s director, said. “Almost every time I read the news, I see something that relates to TIES: red tide, sea level rise, pollution, flooding. Making the university’s research on these issues accessible to all Floridians is fundamentally important to the future of our state.”

MacFadden, a UF distinguished professor and vertebrate paleontology curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and his team will collect and share research from more than 50 UF departments, colleges, centers and institutes. As TIES grows, it will also communicate other Earth systems research conducted throughout the state.

“Because of our research prowess and position as the state’s flagship university, UF is uniquely poised to become a national leader in communication and advancing public understanding of Earth systems science for Floridians and beyond,” he said.

TIES’s outreach efforts will target public audiences such as lifelong learners, schoolchildren and teachers, and UF undergraduate non-science majors. MacFadden considers educating Florida’s next generation as an essential step in preparing the state for the ever-increasing challenges presented by a changing environment.

“Why should someone living in Miami care that the Arctic icecap is melting? The reason is that, from thousands of miles away, the melting icecap is driving sunny-day flooding on our coasts,” he said. “Only by understanding the interactions between Earth systems will we be poised to respond to these threats.”

A $10 million investment from Fort Myers couple Jon and Beverly Thompson provided the cornerstone funding for the institute. UF’s Office of Research and the Florida Museum of Natural History provided additional funding.

“The research carried out at the University of Florida is critical to our understanding of Earth’s systems,” the Thompsons said earlier this year. “We believe it is essential that our university step forward to continue research on problems such as biodiversity and environmental conservation.”

Three UF researchers from across campus have been named TIES faculty fellows: educational technology professor Pasha Antonenko from the College of Education, geologist Andrea Dutton from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and biology and biodiversity scientist Andrea Lucky from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The Florida Museum will also hire an assistant curator in museum education, who will be based in TIES, and the institute is recruiting for other positions.