October 3, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University
By Ronald E. Roel
FROM ITS BEGINNING 165 years ago, The City University of New York has always had a dual mission: Deliver high-quality education — and serve the citizens of the city.
Today, CUNY’s 6,700 full-time faculty carry on this legacy, contributing in ways that truly transform our city, benefiting the lives of millions of New Yorkers every day. Many provide critical training for the city’s diverse workforce. They teach young scientists to explore new fields like photonics, biodiversity and nanotechnology; they train municipal employees in emergency preparedness for large-scale disasters; they create programs that teach health industry professionals how to detect early incidence of oral cancer and better care for people with developmental disabilities.
These are extraordinary faculty who connect the university to its community, engaging their students in the complex challenges facing the city.
Take Allan Wernick, for example, the Baruch College law professor who launched Citizenship Now! the largest immigrant-aid organization in the city, which assists thousands of people every year — for free — in its nine centers throughout the five boroughs. Or Mandë Holford, a professor of chemical biology at Hunter College who has created a unique program to mentor young urban scientists — while she conducts her own remarkable research on the natural poisons found in sea snails that are now being used to help alleviate chronic pain in cancer patients. Or still others, like William Solecki, the director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, who brings together diverse groups of researchers and public policymakers to hammer out collaborative solutions to threatening environmental changes.
On the following pages, you’ll find the compelling stories of these and other CUNY faculty — just a few of the remarkable men and women whose service reflects the unique, historic bond between the University and its city.
Transforming Disability Care
When Mariette Bates started her career in mental health advocacy in the mid-1970s, there were no courses on how to provide community care. She had to learn her skills on the job — several jobs, actually.
Bates began as program director at One to One, a foundation started by television journalist Geraldo Rivera after his expose of neglect and abuse of mentally disabled patients at Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. The foundation’s mission was to help bring people out of state institutions like Willowbrook, and Bates was responsible for an array of complex funding, training and technical assistance tasks needed to set up new community-based programs.
Then she focused her attention on helping parents find care for children who were hard to fit into the system, such as those with multiple disabilities or language barriers. As co-founder, and vice president of the Maidstone Foundation for 25 years, she assisted parents’ groups and more than 600 nonprofit organizations with strategic planning and training, with a special focus on developmental disabilities and youth services.
Today, as academic director of the Disability Studies programs and Distinguished Lecturer at CUNY’s School of Professional Studies, Bates is widely recognized as a leader in creating educational programs for administrative and supervisory workers in the field of developmental and behavioral disabilities — an area frequently underserved in the broader field that includes physical disabilities.
When William Ebenstein, now University dean for Health and Human Services, developed the first stand-alone master’s degree in disability studies in the country, Bates came to SPS to lead it. Launched in 2009, the program now has about 90 students, most of whom are middle- and upper-level managers employed by service providers (about 20 percent of them also have some form of disability themselves).
This fall, SPS is launching the nation’s first online bachelor’s degree in disability studies, designed to provide frontline workers with a broad foundation in the field, as well as opportunities for in-depth study in one of four concentrations. “We’re focused on educating the workforce,” says Bates. “We need to give workers the tools they need to do a good job.”
Noting the recent controversy over charges of physical abuse of the developmentally disabled in state-run group homes, Bates stresses that “the quality of life of people with disabilities depends on those who interact directly with them.” The underlying idea, she says, is to create services for people with disabilities that nondisabled people would find acceptable for themselves.
“Part of what we’re doing is trying to transform the system of care,” says Bates. “I’m a big fan of our students. I feel lucky to be here.”
How to Run a City Emergency
During the 1990s, a bitter civil war resulting from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced more than 2 million, making it the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II. At the time, Andrew Boyarsky, a project-management specialist, was overseeing a large-scale humanitarian effort, distributing food and emergency medical assistance to hundreds of thousands of refugees. “It gave me a good foundation in emergency response,” Boyarsky says.
More than a decade later, Boyarsky found himself at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, teaching thousands of New York City workers how to run emergency shelters in case the metropolitan area was hit by a hurricane. He was preparing them for a full-scale response, dealing with 600,000 people — roughly a population the size of Charlotte, N.C. “As you can understand,” he says, “I’m not daunted by numbers.”
For the past five years, Boyarsky, one of the city’s premier experts in emergency management, has played a key role in helping the city develop a plan for preparing and responding to disasters like hurricanes — and train the workers needed to run it. “These are city workers who don’t do this on a regular basis,” says Boyarsky, an adjunct professor at Baruch and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. “They’re stepping into a role they’re capable of doing, but they need to know how to manage a public that is likely to be stressed out.”
As project director for “Coastal Storm Plan Personnel Training,” based at the School of Professional Studies, Boyarsky began with classroom training, but soon realized that to provide “hands on” training for 25,000 workers in 19 different agencies, he would need another strategy. He ended up using “Second Life,” a popular, online virtual world that allows users to interact with each other using avatars.
In late August 2011, the emergency response plan was finally activated when Hurricane Irene (then a tropical storm) made landfall in Brooklyn. It would be the first time a municipality like New York had set up an emergency sheltering system of that size on its own (that is, not managed by an organization like the Red Cross). About 5,000 city workers staffed 80 hurricane shelters and special medical needs shelters; 10,000 people were housed in these shelters.
At the request of the city’s emergency management office, Boyarksy himself took over the management of the York College shelter, working a 30-hour shift, from 8 a.m. Saturday, to 2 p.m. Sunday. The facility ended up housing and feeding 1,000 people — 160 of them special needs cases who came in from nursing homes — for a day and a half. A few days later, Boyarsky posted a blog, chronicling events over the weekend. His final words: “We were ready, and we made it happen.”
Citizenship Now! A Small CUNY Beginning to a Giant Citywide Success
In the summer of 1973, Allan Wernick was invited to take an internship with a nonprofit organization called CASA, whose mission was to protect undocumented Mexican immigrants from deportation. It was not a high-paying job: $25 a week.
It was a time of fervent community activism, and immigration was an area where Wernick sensed he could make a difference. “There wasn’t a lot of expertise in immigration law” in those days, recalled Wernick, then a law student in Southern California.
After law school, the San Diego native headed for New York, where he built up a private practice in immigration before arriving at the Hostos Community College where he helped organize a Women’s and Immigrants’ Rights Center in 1990. His heart was still in community activism, but he believed he would be able to fulfill his “serve-the-community feelings” by teaching and using his skills helping immigrants in a college atmosphere. Little did Wernick realize that his fortuitous internship decades earlier would eventually lead to an iconic CUNY program, combining free legal services, education and volunteerism into a single initiative — the most comprehensive university-based immigration service in the country.
Now a professor of law at Baruch College, Wernick is director of Citizenship Now! which includes nine centers in New York City where immigrants can go for forms, educational activities and confidential consultations with paralegals and attorneys. Over the past 10 years, the annual Citizenship Now! Call-In — co-sponsored by the New York Daily News — has answered almost 110,000 calls from New Yorkers seeking help with immigration questions. Thousands more have been helped by the NYC/CUNY Citizenship Now! Volunteer Corps, which provides free, in-person counseling on weekends. Several years ago, Wernick started the University’s unique Immigration Law Certificate Program, which offers high-level courses for those working with immigrants, or their employers and families.
“I had no idea,” says Wernick, “that this would turn into something as vast and effective as we’ve become.”
Such efforts are especially significant in New York City, where 47 percent of the residents were born in a foreign country and 54 percent live in a household with a foreign-born member. Some 800,000 of an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants nationwide live in the New York area. “Our overall goal is to help people get citizenship,” says Wernick. “We facilitate the process from being here illegally to becoming legal. We do it for free and we have a high-quality reputation. If they don’t have a good case, we tell them.”
Citizenship Now! began with modest ambitions in 1997. First conceived by Jay Hershenson, Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations and Secretary of the Board of Trustees, Wernick launched a program designed to address the need for citizenship and immigration services among CUNY’s foreign-born students, faculty and staff. (More than 60 percent of CUNY students are immigrants or the children of immigrant parents.) It was Hershenson’s vision “that made this happen,” says Wernick. “He understood the role CUNY could play in the lives of New York’s immigrants. His support was the key.”
At first, just a few staff were first trained to provide counseling services on each campus. Responding to high demand for such services across the city, the University soon expanded its mission to cover New Yorkers beyond CUNY campuses.
Over 15 years, Citizenship Now! has steadily grown into what is the largest immigration-aid organization in the city. It has assisted more than 95,000 people at its seven full-time immigration centers and two part-time centers. These services are provided by more than 1,800 members of the organization’s Volunteer Corps — in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Polish and Creole, among other languages. Citizenship Now! also collaborates with the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, making CUNY campuses available for naturalization swearing-in ceremonies.
Wernick credits much of the organization’s success to the University’s broad-based support, from providing the expertise of legal and IT staff, to the use of campus facilities. “It’s remarkable that something like this exists, and it’s because of the University’s willingness to make it happen,” he says. “It enhances what we do. It makes it such a joy to do this kind of thing in an environment that’s so supportive.”
In the last five years, the organization has held more than 200 community events in partnership with local officials and organizations. For example, in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 Haitian earthquake, Citizenship Now! — in collaboration with the American Immigration Lawyers Association — helped more than 900 undocumented Haitians in the U.S. obtain Temporary Protected Status. The quake struck close to home: The city’s Haitian community is America’s largest, with some 6,000 students of Haitian descent studying at CUNY. Just a week after the quake, a webinar was held to train hundreds of volunteers to help Haitians fill out the federal forms at three major events sponsored by the mayor’s office and overseen by Wernick. “It was a terrific experience,” Wernick said at the time. “It was heartening to see so many volunteers come out. And the people were really appreciative. I think they understood that this was really good quality of service and there was no charge to them.”
The CUNY/Daily News Call-In also has become a high-profile annual event, a weeklong campaign each spring when some 350 volunteer counselors answer thousands of telephone calls from city residents with immigration-related issues. The event is perennially frequented by a string of notable public figures, which this year included Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Secretary of State Cesar Perales, Daily News publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, several borough presidents and City Council members.
Six years ago, Wernick helped create a new Immigration Law Certificate Program at the School of Professional Studies, which offers graduate-level courses for those who are working with immigrants or their employers and families. “It’s where the next generation of immigration law advocates are coming from,” says Wernick, who is author of a popular book, U.S. Immigration and Citizenship: Your Complete Guide (in its fourth edition) and writes a weekly syndicated column about immigration issues for the Daily News. “We train people at SPS, then put them to work at our centers. It’s educational, but work-specific. It’s a terrific service for the people of New York City.”
Engaging Immigrants in City Planning
Every spring for the past three years, Tarry Hum has taken her upper-level urban studies students at Queens College to a place where they can learn firsthand about concepts she teaches in the classroom: Downtown Flushing, one of the most diverse communities in New York City.
In the spring of 2010, her class interviewed various neighborhood stakeholders and produced a report recommending ways to redevelop open spaces that could meet the needs of “multiple publics.” In 2011, her students surveyed local businesses and residents about plans to renovate the Flushing waterfront. And last spring, the class put together a plan for installing photovoltaic panels on roofs in this heavily immigrant community, which includes the city’s largest Chinatown.
Such projects would make an important contribution in any community, but the work of Hum’s classes offer particular value in Flushing. “Typically, newer immigrants are not consulted for urban development,” says Hum. “They don’t have ways to voice their concerns.” That is something Hum and her students are working to change.
Hum, who is Chinese-American, came to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood from Canada with her family in 1974. “My mother worked in an industrial laundry,” Hum says. “Growing up as an immigrant has transformed my work.” With a master’s in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from UCLA’s School of Public Policy and Social Research, Hum now specializes in urban planning that incorporates her interests in immigration and community economic development. In addition to her work at Queens, she was recently appointed to the Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Center’s Environmental Psychology program.
One of the key findings of her students’ projects, Hum says, is the need to find better mechanisms to engage urban immigrants in planning their communities. For instance, in the Downtown Flushing Waterfront project, the class survey of 250 small businesses and residents (conducted with the MinKwon Center for Community Action) found that people were generally unaware of the city’s plans to develop the area.
Earlier this year, Hum’s Solar Flushing Class used the initial work of another class, taught by George Hendrey of Queens College’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, to develop a second-phase project. Hendrey’s class used the NYC Solar Map, an online interactive tool, to produce a study of the potential energy savings from the widespread installation of solar panels on building roofs in Flushing. Hum’s class, in turn, used that study as a basis for in-depth discussions about solar energy with community stakeholders, including elected officials, city and state agencies, civic associations, Community Board 7, and the Flushing Business Improvement District
Such efforts reflect a new emphasis at Queens to “combine service learning with sustainability,” says Hum. “The students really enjoyed working with the community. And we’ve built a lot of credibility with the community — that Queens College kids are able to do good research.”
Good Data for Good Policy
Over the past two years, there has been growing concern among policymakers, academics, practitioners, and advocates about the impact of the troubled economy on children and families. Part of the problem is getting good data: What are the specific racial and ethnic demographics of the poor, and where do they live, particularly in large metropolitan areas like New York.
At Baruch College, professor of public affairs Héctor Cordero-Guzmán has made a significant impact in the area with his recent work on poverty and near-poverty in New York City. Using 2010 data, his report released earlier this year found that poverty in New York City varies significantly across boroughs and by race and ethnicity. Non-Hispanic whites, for example, make up 34.5 percent of the city’s population, but only 18.2 percent of the poor. By comparison, Blacks/African-Americans are 24.7 percent of the population in New York City but 31.5 percent of the poor, and Hispanics are 27.5 percent of New York City’s population but 34.5 percent of the poor. The highest poverty rate is in Brooklyn at 29.3 percent, followed by the Bronx at 25.4 percent and Manhattan with 21.8 percent.
“As a public affairs professor, I try to be a voice, an interpreter of information,” says Cordero-Guzmán. “My role is to help communities connect to policymakers and to help those who make policy better understand low-income communities.”
Throughout his 20-year career at CUNY, Cordero-Guzmán has taught courses on social science research methods, as well as urban demographics; nonprofit management; race and ethnicity; and migration policy. A former chair in the Black and Hispanic Studies Department at Baruch, he also has issued a report on the city’s “disconnected youth,” pointing out the need to increase investments and opportunities for young men, especially those of color. He serves on the advisory board of the Young Men’s Initiative, the city’s comprehensive, public-private effort to tackle these issues. Currently, Cordero-Guzmán is completing a study analyzing the role of community-based organizations (CBOs) in the adaptation and incorporation of immigrants by providing social services, supporting community organizing and engaging in public education and advocacy campaigns.
“I’ve always been interested in improving conditions,” says Cordero- Guzmán. “It’s something that I’ve lived and have been able to make a career of it — I’m lucky.”
Cordero-Guzmán also notes that it’s important for universities to share their expertise with community organizations. “The University contributes the time of its faculty to help organizations work as effectively as they can,” he says. “It brings the community into the University and takes the University out to the community.” He has also served on the boards of directors of several prominent nonprofits, including El Museo del Barrio, one of the city’s leading Latino cultural institutions; ACCION-New York, the largest micro-lending organization in the country; and the Community Service Society, one of the nation’s oldest and largest anti-poverty groups.
A resident of East Harlem, he has also served on the board of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. “I not only believe in community economic development, I practice it, live it and have a huge personal and family stake in its success — as do millions of other Americans,” says Cordero-Guzmán. “I’m on the street corner like everyone else. We call it UCLA: the University on the Corner of Lexington Avenue.”
From Snail Venom for Treating Cancer to Mentoring Young Scientists
As a student at Brooklyn Tech in the early 1990s, Mandë Holford had her sights set on attending a private university that would eventually lead her to a career in international law. It was not to be.
After graduating high school as a math and science major Holford initially went to Wesleyan College. But Holford, the third of five children, was trailing two older siblings who were already going to private colleges, and the cost of another comparable tuition was too great a financial strain on the family. She decided to attend York College, near her family, which had moved to Long Island.
“At first, I was angry,” Holford recalled. “But it turned out to be something positive: I met Larry Johnson.” Lawrence Johnson, a professor of chemistry, brought Holford into his lab, where she began doing research on the proton pump of proteins. “He was an excellent mentor,” Holford says. And she made another unexpected discovery. The life of a researcher really suited her personality and intellect: “I could make my own schedule, choose the question I wanted to work on . . . I’m self-driven. I like initiative.”
So the sting of disappointment was soon transformed into a passion for scientific research — and for mentoring young scientists like her, who might otherwise not choose the road less traveled. “I want to get the word out that science is rewarding,” says Holford, now an assistant professor of chemical biology at Hunter College. “Science is the soccer of careers — anybody can do it. It takes a lot of initiative and drive, but all you need is an active, imaginative mind, which we’re all born with. All you have to do is nurture it.”
After graduating from York in 1997 with a B.S. in mathematics and chemistry, Holford earned a Ph.D. at Rockefeller University. She then accepted a fellowship awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to learn how scientific research can benefit and inform other areas, such as public policy. After her AAAS fellowship, Holford obtained a National Science Foundation fellowship to conduct her postdoctoral studies at the University of Utah, the Paris Museum of Natural History and the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin.
In shaping her postdoctoral fellowship, Holford sought to fuse two prominent silos in science: biomedical research and evolutionary biology. At Rockefeller, a world-renowned center for research in the biomedical science, Holford studied cancer-related proteins. “It was very human-centric research, using abstract knowledge to solve real-world problems,” Holford says. After an internship at the American Museum of Natural History, she fell in love with the natural sciences, “learning about other organisms, beyond fruit flies and C. elegans [roundworms], which are used as models to compare how their biological systems relate to humans.”
Her research has taken her on many far-flung expeditions. Fusing her knowledge of chemistry and biodiversity, she has focused her research on seemingly esoteric sea creatures: venomous, fish-eating snails. The toxins of these snails were initially investigated in the late 1970s by a University of Utah biology professor who was intrigued by memories of his childhood in the Philippines — deadly accounts of fishermen who were getting stung by snails in their nets. These snails use a dart-like tooth and venom gland to attack and paralyze their prey.
“The goal is to try to find stories from nature that can help humans,” Holford says. “Take these snails that eat fish. How is that possible? It turns out the venom is like a cluster bomb; it hits all the organs of the prey and shuts down their functions.”
Holford and other scientists have been studying the snails to learn how to develop therapeutic cures from substances found in nature. In a number of studies, the peptide neurotoxin called Ziconotide, derived from the cone snail species Conus magus, was found effective in providing relief from chronic pain in HIV and cancer patients. While the snail uses Ziconotide to paralyze prey, the same peptide injected into a human spine blocks the flow of calcium into nerve cells, thus interfering with the transmission of pain signals.
Several years ago, the Food and Drug administration approved an artificially manufactured form of Ziconotide, marketed under the trade name Prialt. Now Holford is doing more targeted searches for related species of venomous snails that produce similar “drug-able” toxins. This approach represents a major shift, she says, in the development of nonaddictive painkillers, especially as an alternative to morphine.
In 2008, nine years after graduating from York College, Holford returned to CUNY, first reuniting with her York colleague, Johnson, while also taking a dual appointment as a research associate in the invertebrate zoology division of the American Museum of Natural History. Three years later, she joined the chemistry department at Hunter. Her research has won Holford several awards, including a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation and recently a Feliks Gross Endowment Award, presented to assistant professors at CUNY for outstanding work in the humanities or sciences.
While continuing her own research, Holford remains fervent in promoting mentorship opportunities for budding scientists. A former manager of the after-school Science Research Mentoring Program at the American Museum of Natural History, she remains active in the program. The September-to-May program places about 200 students with scientist-mentors at the museum in fields such as astrophysics, earth science and conservation biology. “It’s a way of trying to get urban students into science,” says Holford. “Mentoring is very important. It’s how knowledge gets shared. It has impact.”
Part of the reward of mentoring is showing kids that they “can be something besides a doctor, a lawyer or business person” adds Holford. “You can expose people who would not normally think about science as a career option.” In particular, Holford is committed to getting women into the lab. Through a National Science Foundation grant, Holford has created a two-year program called RAISE-W (Resource Assisted Initiatives in Science Empowerment for Women).
The goal is to help young women at CUNY and other New York academic institutions find sustainable career paths in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. The initiative provides female students with faculty mentors on individual research projects, with one-on-one executive coaching sessions to teach important “soft skills,” such as time management. Holford points out that long-term success in science, like business, often requires women to juggle many personal and professional tasks — thus, a need to partner executive coaching with hands-on research skills.
Such initiatives also support the University’s broader mission of bringing high-quality science education to underrepresented populations. “CUNY serves a very special purpose,” Holford says. “You have to be gritty, but it gives people a chance.” And promoting science is essential to “building an intelligent citizenry in the city,” she adds. “We need to help people learn about something else — besides waking up and paying bills every day. We want to spark their imagination.”
Robert ‘Buzz’ Paaswell
The Art of Urban Transit
Now a Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering at City College, Paaswell has spent more than two decades at CUNY, conducting research, carrying out worker training programs and providing broad-ranging consulting services on mass transit and public transportation matters. As director emeritus of the University Transportation Research Center — Region 2, a consortium of 17 major academic institutions based at City College, Paaswell is widely considered one of the preeminent experts working on complex public transportation issues affecting the current and future economy of New York City. In 2000, he also founded the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems (CIUS), a multicampus entity that investigates how contemporary urban infrastructure is affected by new technology, finance and changing institutions.
“Once you work in this business, you love it,” he says.
Paaswell arrived at City College in 1990, after serving as executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority, the nation’s second-largest urban transit system. At the transportation research center (one of 10 original university transportation centers nationwide established in 1987 by Congress), Paaswell and his colleagues have overseen an extraordinary array of initiatives, involving every local and regional transportation agency. A sampling: Paaswell served as the impartial expert for path-breaking labor negotiations in establishing standards for bus maintenance hours that saved the city transit authority millions of dollars a year. He has analyzed the multibillion-dollar capital costs versus potential economic benefits of major proposals to modernize the city’s aging transit system. And he worked with unions and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to assess the training need for workers as buses and rail cars transition from manual to high-tech operations.
“My role is to show people how things are changing,” says Paaswell. “We don’t come in and tell them the solution. We come in with the state of good practices and a cost-benefit analysis. We engage leaders in discussions — and sometimes we’re quietly asked to do things.”
Paaswell notes that the CUNY School of Professional Studies also has assumed a key role in training board members of New York State public authorities. This executive-level training in good governance and fiscal oversight practices was developed at the request of the New York State Commission on Public Authority Reform. “SPS has become an important part of New York City,” says Paaswell.
Right now, one of the major questions for Paaswell is whether urban areas have enough energy resources to support needed changes in their infrastructure. He also wonders how the revolution in “real-time information” is changing the way we live. “We’re moving decision-making from long memos to apps on smart phones,” he says. “Does this have resonance in the public sector? We want to set the platform for the next generation.”
The initiative provides female students with faculty mentors on individual research projects, with one-on-one executive coaching sessions to teach important “soft skills,” such as time management.
Our Sustainable Cities: Science for Policy That Works
When William Solecki describes the concept behind the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, he evokes a time long before the social and environmental activism of the 1960s — 100 years earlier, in fact. “It can be compared to the land-grant college tradition,” says Solecki, director of the institute and professor of geography at Hunter College.
Land-grant colleges, he explains, were established by Congress through the Morrill Act of 1862, in an effort to transform the nation’s economy through the teaching of practical agriculture, science and engineering, albeit without excluding “classical studies.”
Subsequently, the land-grant cooperative extension service programs were created to provide a mechanism for university-community engagement — a way to respond more flexibly to the needs of a changing rural economy.
“We’re borrowing from that model of civic engagement to look at urban sustainability today, combining cutting-edge research and public-engagement opportunities,” says Solecki. “Our goal is to develop a cooperative relationship between the community and higher education, a longer-term, transformative experience.”
Solecki was born in Manhattan (“a small island in an estuary,” as he wryly describes it), and his 25 years of teaching and research have been devoted to issues of urban environmental change. He has taught numerous classes in this field, as well as courses in climate change, world geography, environmental policy and geographic information systems. And he serves as co-leader of several climate impact and land use studies in the New York metropolitan region, including the New York City Panel on Climate Change.
“The biggest thing for me is illustrating how scientists can interact with policymakers to make a difference in our everyday lives,” says Solecki. “I’m interested in promoting a better understanding and connection between the human and natural worlds.”
This emphasis on making connections across often disparate sectors of society reflects the founding vision of the Hunter-based sustainable cities institute, which was originally financed and supported by the late Theodore Kheel, known as NewYork City’s preeminent labor peacemaker from the 1950s through the 1980s. Kheel spent his later years addressing fundamental conflicts between developers and environmental interests, encouraging decision-makers to apply his alternative dispute resolution techniques to resolve these issues. The CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities (www.cunysustainablecities.org) was forged as part of a strategic alliance between Kheel’s environmental organizations Earthpledge and Nurture Nature Foundation.
Under Solecki’s leadership, CISC continues to disseminate the latest knowledge about sustainability to a wide range of audiences, serving New York and other cities worldwide. About a dozen faculty and research assistants work on city-centric projects, such as an effort to help restore Jamaica Bay. “It’s a very degraded system,” says Solecki. Researchers are exploring ways to improve water quality through eco-friendly approaches, he says, like promoting the local population of oysters, which naturally filter out pollutants from the water.
One of the institute’s signature initiatives is its Urban Sustainability Extension Service (USES) program. Through USES, the institute attempts to blend the notion of the extension service programs of land-grant colleges with the social activism of the ’60s, Solecki says, meeting the desires of students to engage their community in real-world issues. Currently, USES is working with neighborhood groups, government agencies and environmental organizations to develop sustainable practices in East Harlem. “We’re entering into discussions with community groups,” says Solecki, to set out objectives, needs assessment and analysis of interconnected issues, ranging from ways to promote climate change adaptation and mitigation to improving local food production and health delivery systems.
Students are an integral part of many institute activities. For example, the institute’s staff provides support for Hunter’s successful TGIF (The Green Initiative Fund) program and helps direct the Hunter Solar Project, a student-organized initiative aimed at expanding the use of solar energy on campus. Last fall, the college completed the installation of a solar photovoltaic system on the Hunter North building to generate on-site renewable electricity and to serve as an educational resource for the campus. “It was a nice opportunity to connect student engagement and instruction facilities,” Solecki says.
Another initiative is the City Atlas project, a “bottom-up” guide to events, ideas and actions related to urban sustainability. “It’s an organic social media platform,” says Solecki, with website items contributed from an array of participants around the city on eclectic topics (Examples: an account of East River Blueway, a community-based waterfront planning initiative; and a story about ecologist Eric Sanderson’s “Mannahatta 2409,” a map-based Web application that will let users experiment with the design of the sustainable city of the future.)
Beside his institute work, Solecki has been active in bringing climate change issues into the urban arena. He has served on a number of key environmental committees, currently co-chairing the New York City Panel on Climate Change with Cynthia Rosenzweig, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The panel is a group of technical experts that advises Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, one of dozens of initiatives presented in PlaNYC, the city’s long-term sustainability plan.
Two years ago the panel released its first report, providing an initial risk assessment of climate change on New York City’s critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges and tunnels; mass transit; water and sewer systems; electric and gas production and distribution; and telecommunications networks.
Working with the task force — composed of 41 city, state and federal agencies, public authorities and private companies — the panel is developing strategies to make infrastructure more resilient to the effects of climate change. The report, Solecki says, “provides an opportunity to review all existing codes and standards and see if we need adjustments in rebuilding infrastructure, taking climate change into account.”
As the work of the panel continues, the recommendations are likely to become important action points in PlaNYC, “a touchstone document for the city,” Solecki says. But whatever the policy outcomes, the process is precisely what Solecki envisioned in the Institute for Sustainable Cities: “Our goal is bring cutting-edge research to diverse audiences,” he says, “and show how both the sciences and the humanities can inform people about sustainability.”
Gwen Cohen Brown
Integrating Community Health Care
For associate professor Dr. Gwen Cohen Brown, dental hygiene has always meant much more than caring for teeth. Since joining the City Tech faculty in 2004, she and her faculty team have been on a mission to educate students, other health care providers and the public at large about the importance of intra-oral and extra-oral examination in detecting oral cancer — a disease more prevalent than melanoma.
Only one in five dentists screen for oral cancer as part of their regular patient checkups, and yet, such routine inspections could greatly increase the early detection of cancer, as well as skin and autoimmune diseases. “Most of what we see in our clinic is benign,” says Cohen Brown, “but early intervention offers the best chance of treating the disease.”
Several years ago, Cohen Brown initiated a project to provide free annual oral cancer screenings in the college’s downtown Brooklyn dental hygiene clinic in collaboration with the Russian American Dental Association. “We knew there was a high incidence of smoking in Russian immigrants,” Cohen Brown says, “so as a way to encourage that patient population to come in, we promoted a highly successful oral cancer screening event.”
Building on that experience, Cohen Brown joined three other City Tech science faculty in an unusual interdisciplinary project over the last two years funded by the National Science Foundation program known as SENCER (Science Education for a New Civic Engagement and Responsibilities). The project linked the teaching of dental hygiene with pathology and nutrition, as well as basic principles of biology and physics, in the diagnosis and treatment of oral cancer.
“The idea is to connect oral and systemic health … and balance classroom knowledge with the clinical component so we are not teaching in a vacuum,” Cohen Brown says. “My approach to teaching is, ‘Why is this relevant to the rest of your life?’”
This fall, Cohen Brown will be leading a team of City Tech faculty in a similar SENCER project, focused instead on combining interdisciplinary teaching and clinical practices related to HIV/AIDS issues in the Brooklyn community. Cohen Brown also has been on the faculty of the state health department’s AIDS Institute for 20 years.
As well as stressing a more “systemic-health” approach, Cohen Brown exhorts her students to become more engaged with patients and their community. “For a significant number of patients we are the only health care provider,” she says. During clinic sessions, which run almost every day, students do head and neck exams on patients and review their medical history. “We translate pathologic terms into English for our patients,” Cohen Brown says. “Although we don’t see that much cancer, we’re picking up a lot of pathology.”
Students are also encouraged to try different ways to bring in patients from the surrounding City Tech community, such as visiting church groups and senior centers. “We are actively trying to integrate all these things — clinic, community outreach and the academic program,” says Cohen Brown. “Our goal is to unify them in a way that has not been done before.”
Improving Urban Education
Like many CUNY graduates before him, Anthony Picciano was of the first generation in his family to go to college. And since the South Bronx native graduated from Hunter College more than 40 years ago, he has spent most of his professional career at CUNY — teaching, serving in administrative posts and leading cutting-edge research to improve the quality of education in New York and cities nationwide.
“I love the mosaic of CUNY,” says Picciano, now the executive officer of urban education at the Graduate Center. “We get these amazingly industrious students who have jobs and are taking care of their families. They incorporate incredible logistics into their lives.”
Picciano oversees a Ph.D. program that focuses on urban education as an interdependent system of social institutions: the family and neighborhood; schools and partner institutions; and larger-scale political and economic institutions. “A majority of the research is field based,” says Picciano. Many of the program’s roughly 115 students spend extended periods working in schools, hospitals and other institutions. “Their research contributes mightily to education in the city,” says Picciano, who is also Professor of Educational Leadership at Hunter.
One current project, for example, is a two-year initiative to provide training in, and evaluation of, the effectiveness of bilingual programs in New York State’s public schools. (There are about 150,000 bilingual children among the city’s 1.1 million public school students.) Supported by a $1.8 million grant from the New York State Education Department, the principal investigators — Ricardo Otheguy, Ophelia García and Kate Menken — will be working with bilingual students, teachers and principals, “looking to identify exemplary practices,” Picciano says.
Over the past two decades, Picciano’s research also has involved the pioneering uses of instructional technologies. In 1997, he offered one of the first online learning courses at CUNY. A year later, he co-founded CUNY Online, a multimillion-dollar initiative funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that has trained hundreds of faculty to develop online and hybrid courses. By 2006, such efforts helped launch the University’s first fully online B.A. degree at the School of Professional Studies. And today, thousands of students are now enrolled in several online B.A. and M.A. programs, as well as two dozen certificate programs.
“The foundation [of online education] is always to use technology to develop quality instruction,” Picciano says. “My main interest is to help working adults, giving them additional chances to complete their education.”
This fall, Picciano will be coming out with his 10th book, The Great American Education-Industrial Complex, (co-authored with education professor Joel Spring of Queens College), further establishing himself as a leading scholar in contemporary education issues. But as he enters his 43rd year at CUNY, he is still most inspired by the daily work of faculty and students at the Graduate Center. “I’m enjoying the center as if I’m 20 years old,” he says. “I feel honored to give back what CUNY gave to me.”