College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Environmental Science & Policy

New Director Dr. Joe Sullivan welcomes ENSP students to his world

Dr. Sullivan welcomes ENSP students to his world

On the weekends, you might catch the new ENSP Director, Dr. Joseph Sullivan, spending time in nature (perhaps whitewater rafting or skiing, depending on the season!), listening to music with one of his 3 college-aged kids, indulging in a classic Tom Clancy adventure tale, or pondering a future trip to Antarctica -- a destination he describes as “one of the last truly wild places in the world.” During the week, you’ll find him juggling his different roles as a professor in the Plant Sciences department, an accomplished researcher of plant physiology, and of course, the new Director of ENSP. Incredibly eager to meet any and all ENSP students, Dr. Sullivan sat down for an interview to offer students more insight into who he is and to help collectively ‘break the ice.’ So, let’s get to it -- who is Dr. Joseph Sullivan?  

Born and raised in South Carolina, Dr. Sullivan always found himself exploring the woods, backpacking, camping, hiking, and during the summers, leading campers through Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. From a young age, Dr. Sullivan was a lover of the natural world and as he progressed through his schooling, he transferred that love into his decision to study Biology at Erskine College. Initially, he was on the pre-vet track but, just like many college students, Dr. Sullivan was uncertain of his future and was open to new possibilities as his interests and passions developed.

With this open attitude, Dr. Sullivan took a Plant Ecology course taught by his academic advisor, and quickly became enthralled with the subject. Following his completion of the course, he left pre-vet, switched to plant physiology, and TA’d for his advisor for a number of years. Before he knew it, he had finished his undergrad degree and began working towards his Master’s degree in Biology at Western Carolina University. Describing his transition from Veterinary Science to Biology, Dr. Sullivan jokes, “I just kind of went from puppies and kittens and horses, to oak trees and pine trees.”

After completing his Master’s degree, Dr. Sullivan returned to Erskine College to teach Biology, Ecology and Botany. Having been a TA for a number of years in both undergraduate and graduate school, Dr. Sullivan already knew he enjoyed teaching, but it was not until this position that he experienced the freedom and independence of managing his own classroom and courses. Asked what he loved most, Dr. Sullivan emphasized, “I loved being in the position to try and help someone to the next stage in their career.” With this in mind, Dr. Sullivan went back to school to attain a PhD in Plant Physiology from Clemson University.

Beyond affirming his aspirations as a teacher, however, Dr. Sullivan’s year at Erskine also sparked his interest in researching how human actions impact the world of plants. He recalls teaching a field-based class entitled “Human Ecology,” which allowed students to explore the impact humans were having on the environment by visiting strip mines, nuclear power plants, logging operations, and more. This course was Dr. Sullivan’s first experience with the topic of Environmental Science, but far from his last, as his entire research career has revolved around the relationship between human actions and plant physiology.

In fact, Dr. Sullivan dove into environmental research at one of the most important times in the history of environmental science -- the discovery of the ozone hole. At the time, “it was a radical idea that humans were destroying the ozone layer and that it was going to lead to increases in UV radiation.”  Dr. Sullivan began working for Dr. Alan Teramura, a professor at UMD who was one of the leaders in the study of stratospheric ozone loss. Together, they worked on a project for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to learn more about the impact of ozone depletion and increased UV radiation on plant physiology and, correspondingly, the human food supply.

This research set the course for the next 30 years of Dr. Sullivan’s career, as he has continued exploring plant responses to UV radiation, in addition to other topics such as the ecosystem services provided by urban tree cover, and the impact of atmospheric CO2 on plant physiology. Dr. Sullivan explains his research interests by stating, “I think anybody that spends any time in the natural environment is going to be concerned with the future of it.” His concern is what led him to help develop the ENSP program in the early 90s, to teach the first ENSP101 courses, and what has him so excited to be back in ENSP after a 15 year hiatus.

As the new ENSP Director, Dr. Sullivan is most excited to work with students and help them reach their goals, which he believes is to “make a difference for the Earth.” Dr. Sullivan, like anyone involved with the environmental sciences, is worried by the number of threats facing the natural world. However, his experience researching the impacts of the ozone hole, which is now on the trajectory for recovery, and his consistent interaction with passionate and motivated students has him hopeful for the future.

When asked what is the one thing he would like ENSP students to know about him, Dr. Sullivan smiles and responds, “That I am here to help them. I always welcome them to come by to say hi, and that I am anxious to get to know them.” So, whether you want to just pop in to say hello, stay a while to chat about research and career opportunities, or discuss a shared appreciation for the natural world, your latest outdoor adventure, a good book or music tune, or anything else, Dr. Sullivan’s door is open, and he is excited to meet you.

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