By Diana Penner
Professor of Chemistry Frank Dunnivant melds sensibilities borne of the 1960s with intellectual curiosity honed from decades in the laboratory. He wears tie-dye T-shirts and Birkenstocks, drives a small, rusty 1988 pickup truck full of green waste and listens to the Grateful Dead while citing real-world examples of pressing environmental issues to students, motivating them to conduct research through pinpoint evidence, and embracing their humanity in the process. Indeed, since 1999, Dunnivant has regaled his Whittie charges with stories from applied science, like using the giant waves of the ocean to illustrate the Schrödinger equation from quantum mechanics-when not wading through a stream in search of anthropogenic pollution.
His latest book, Environmental Success Stories: Solving Major Ecological Problems and Confronting Climate Change, published in March by Columbia University Press for a general audience, also reflects this blend of hardcore data and solicitous accessibility. Using conversational language, he summarizes the eco-progress made since the 1970s in chapters that range from "Securing Safe, Inexpensive Drinking Water" to "Saving Our Atmosphere for Our Children" to "Legislating Industry." Dunnivant also poses an urgent question: "All of the environmental success stories covered in this book required monumental effort. The only question that remains is, when will we start to really fight the causes of global warming?"
A blurb for the book by H. H. Shugart, a systems ecologist at University of Virginia, also encapsulates Dunnivant: "approachable, optimistic and science-based." At Whitman, the man who says he had no academic role models when growing up inspires his students through affable, offbeat tales. In fact, they refer to his lectures as "story time with Frank." And Dunnivant ends emails with an excerpt from a whimsical piece of environmental advocacy literature: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." The source? The Lorax, the 1971 children's book by Dr. Seuss.
Dunnivant, who earned a B.S. in environmental health from Auburn University and an M.S. and Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Clemson University, answered questions about his work, students, background and predilections.
Whitman Magazine: Where did the idea for Environmental Success Stories come from?
Frank Dunnivant: It was a hallway moment. Several professors and I were discussing the attacks on the environment in 2004 by the Bush administration. He was trying to do this, that and the other. But it occurred to me that he was being very unsuccessful. He did decrease Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspections and delay action on coal and climate change, but otherwise did little. Then all the past successes occurred to me. Being a child of the '60s and '70s, I saw environmental disasters nightly on the news. We have come a very long way today with our environmental standards. It also occurred to me that despite all the doom and gloom we teach, we have won most of the arguments. And yes, the doom and gloom will continue to come true if we don't globally regulate industry, but as I say in my book, the future is not completely fixed at this point. We can minimize climate change if we regulate industry.
WM: What new ideas came out of the book for you?
FD: I'm fascinated with the mind of a polluter or pollution supporter. What is going on in the minds of bad-acting CEOs or politicians who have sold their souls to polluters? Why would they knowingly do what they do? These questions just might be the scaffolding for my next book.
WM: Who were your earliest influences in science?
FD: The first I remember were from 1960s TV: Rod Serling's Twilight Zone and Gene Roddenberry from the original Star Trek. I watched these over and over, fascinated by the issues they brought to light even with the heavy censorship at the time. In my teenage years, I read the classics in science, including Rachel Carson and Louis Leakey. Of course, growing up on a farm in a family of "woodsmen" taught me an appreciation of nature.
WM: You once worked for governmental entities and contractors but became disillusioned. Why?
FD: Some say progress is slow in academia; it's near nonexistent in government. Scientists/engineers identify a problem, study the problem, solve the problem or propose an answer, and foolishly assume that the problem is solved. Government does not work that way.
WM: You like to say that during that time, you felt like you were in a Dilbert cubicle. Are you a fan of that comic strip? Others?
FD: I'm a lifelong cynic, but also a pragmatic optimist. I discovered Dilbert while working for the Department of Energy (DOE) but didn't like it. After leaving the DOE for academia, I found it hilarious. I remember one specific cartoon. The pointy-haired boss comes in and fires everyone, sends them home for the weekend to rewrite their resumes to fit their actual jobs, and hires them all back on the next Monday. I laughed and thought that writer/illustrator Scott Adams had finally gone too far. Then I remembered that I actually had done this! One of the main rules of management within the government is distraction, and this is only one example of life in a government cubicle. Likewise, I am a big fan of Gary Larson's Far Side.
WM: Why are you and Whitman a good fit?
FD: This is simple: having the opportunity to work with gifted, excellent students and colleagues. I've done everything possible with a chemistry degree: industry, environmental consulting, research universities, government and international research. Whitman has the best of all worlds. The best way to appreciate academia is to work in the "real world" for five minutes. My success at Whitman is due to great freedoms and opportunities offered by the college and by outstanding students. I believe that in my 17 years at Whitman, I have published 21 items (journal articles, software packages and books) with 34 Whitman students. This is not due to any great talent on my part but rather reflects the opportunities afforded to me and excellent, dedicated students. I could not have accomplished this in any of my other jobs.
WM: How did you learn to teach?
FD: By far, my favorite teachers in high school and college were those who applied the topic to the real world, most notably Professor Gene Wilks of Auburn University's microbiology department. But this approach is easy in the environmental sciences. My students affectionately call my lectures "story time with Frank," but they learn and remember from these stories. Everything you teach should be relatable to the real world. For example, take quantum mechanics and the Schrödinger equation for describing electron energy levels and orbitals in atoms. Schrödinger developed a new form of math to describe the oscillation movement of electrons in atoms. Yet this same equation can describe the occurrence of "sneaker" or "killer" giant waves in the ocean. Moral of story: apply the lesson of the day to the real world and students will learn it and remember it.
WM: Discuss your educational software created with Whitman students.
FD: It all started with EnviroLand, a Visual Basic-based educational software package, funded by the Dreyfus Foundation, for my junior-level environmental chemistry course. It is basically a mathematical computer game that teaches environmental concepts. This was a major computer programming effort involving thousands of lines of code, and a debugging nightmare, but I was very pleased with the final product. I used it for several years and one day a student came to me asking to reprogram it in Flash. I tried to explain what a massive effort this was, but he persisted, and I repeatedly declined. One day, in his frustration, he lobbed the biggest insult he could: The current version looked DOS-y. My response was yes, but it works just fine. So, I made a bet with him: If he would take the most mathematically complicated module and impress me, then I would write a book around his software. A month later, he blew me away with his results. The book, A Basic Introduction to Pollutant Fate and Transport, was published in 2006 (Wiley InterScience) with my student, Elliot Anders '01, as coauthor. Elliot has now updated the software again, this time in HTML, and we have a new contract to produce a 2018 version of the textbook. Moral of story: be careful placing bets with students!
WM: What do you do for fun?
FD: I'm a child of the '60s and '70s and still love to just relax and listen to music from that era and folk music from any era. Also, anything in nature is inspiring. I have the best of both worlds: an enjoyable hobby (I don't refer to it as work) and 5-year-old twins to entertain me.
WM: Do you ever go to see "science-y" movies?
FD: I have a love-hate relationship with sci-fi, written word or in film. Yes, the fi in sci-fi is fiction. But I have a limited tolerance for the breaking of basic laws of physics. The most recent worst movies: Gravity and The Martian. Unwatchable! One of my longtime favorites, because it accurately captured human nature, is Contact from 1997 and based on Carl Sagan's 1985 novel.
WM: What do you think of science popularizers like Bill Nye the Science Guy and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson?
FD: They are great. I would add would-be President Al Gore, the most science-educated politician in D.C.
WM: Your worries about conflicts today between government and science?
FD: The biggest problem we have today is the age-old argument of government regulation versus deregulation. If there is one message history has proven and is presented in Environmental Success Stories, it is that regulations are necessary. Regulations keep the few bad actors in industry in check, and regulations level the playing field for national and international markets. Regulations brought us out of the age of rivers literally catching on fire from excessive pollution, poisoning our children with tetraethyl lead added to gasoline to increase fossil fuel profits, and Love Canal-era pollution scenarios.
WM: If you could talk to Scott Pruitt, Trump's EPA administrator, what would you tell him?
FD: This would probably be a pointless conversation, since he is governing based on policy, not science. But first, I would show our decades of success with regulation. Second, I would note that when his EPA does not follow EPA's congressional mandate, he will be sued. Third, I would remind industry, as most of them know and agree, that the political pendulum will swing back to the responsible middle or left and they will be held accountable for their actions.
WM: Young children are often enthused about science but leave that curiosity behind as they get older. How can we solve this?
FD: Take the computer games away from your kids and take a nature walk every weekend (without access to Pokémon)!
Diana Penner has written for newspapers for more than 30 years, including The Indianapolis Star and The St. Louis Sun. She received a B.S. in journalism from Southern Illinois University and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from University of Illinois-Springfield.