Professor Berg

Environmental Studies & Policy

How did you come to AUP?

Even though I was born and raised mostly in the US, I’ve been living abroad for almost half of my life now. I’ve been a post-doc for many years, engaging in a lot of different research projects across the globe and I’ve changed focus as I think more about connections between different fields. Although I’d spent most of my career at large research schools, I had always wanted to work at a smaller university, since I like working on small projects and working closely with students. I was trying to figure out how to get from a big, research university to a small, liberal arts college, when I saw an opening at AUP. For me, this was the perfect combination of educational philosophy and location: I’d lived in Paris for a year when I was little and it’s a city that I’ve always loved.


What are your main fields of interest and have these changed since coming to AUP?

I am a broadly trained evolutionary biologist but I’m interested in many disciplines and I incorporate multiple elements of different subjects as I go. My BA was in Anthropology and my PhD was in Animal Behavior, specifically social behavior or how animals interact in groups. During my PhD, I focused on birds, but I have worked with many other animals as well, including primates and insects. Since my PhD, I have done research in many fields, including molecular ecology, population biology, and environmental science.

Since coming to AUP, my interests have shifted, in part because my closest colleague is a climate biologist [Professor Claudio Piani] and in part because I’m not working within a giant department of evolutionary biologists but with people who have very disparate interests. This, to me, is one of the joys of working at AUP: you get to think about projects that you can do with an art historian or a physicist or a mathematician, and so on. Professor Piani and I are putting our heads together to think about those combinations and how to integrate ideas about evolutionary biology into ideas about climate change, including monitoring the effects of climate change and their impact on natural systems.

What is your teaching philosophy and the balance of theory and practice in your classes?

I find the idea of students guiding a class very valuable. Putting power in the hands of students to shape what they want to learn and in what direction they want to go is important. Of course, it’s very difficult to do when you’re, for example, teaching introductory science classes, because you have to provide a certain structure and a certain set of materials but overall, I like that students can direct and/or help professors guide projects.

I provide a lot of structured labs for the first half of the semester, where students have to learn certain methods and concepts very rigorously and then I train them to be animal behaviorists. I set them loose for three independent projects in the lab, so it’s more structured, and then we all go to the menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes, where they choose an animal and an idea, design the whole thing, and then observe human behavior, but from the perspective of an animal behaviorist, with the training they’ve already received in class. So in that case, I provide guidance and the students do the rest.


Is it important to be publishing work?

I think it’s extremely important. I need to publish my research because as a scientist, it’s crucial to my career and to the advancement of science, but I also think it’s crucial at AUP. We need to help integrate undergraduates into that experience. As an example, with one of my students, Shannon [Monahan], we’ve outlined a project that we intend to publish in a scholarly journal that’s been peer-reviewed: we have very high ambitions.


What do you see as being the unique characteristics of AUP’s Environmental Studies major?

What’s great about the major is that it provides a cross-section between so many disciplines. So, for example, someone majoring in Environmental Studies can also specialize in politics or conservation biology. I think it brings a really cool discussion to the table. I’m extremely grateful to AUP for its support in making sure that we get the latest equipment, especially the climate chambers. Nothing that we’re doing now would be possible without those new, state-of-the-art facilities.