Professor's Efforts Helped
Raise Funds for Program
By Arthur Sorrentino
For Professor Bob Whitlatch, department head and interim director of the Marine Sciences Program at the Avery Point campus, understanding how biological interactions among species shape the structure and dynamics of marine environments is the core of his academic life.
From individuals to entire communities, he has learned the effects a single action can have on the coastal ecosystem.
The same principle also applies to interactions between a dedicated faculty member with a vision, a large public utility, and a major research university: the delicate balance of dependencies in this scenario can produce a result that contributes to the benefit of society at large.
The interaction between Whitlatch, Northeast Utilities, and the University's Department of Marine Sciences, is a case in point.
Northeast Utilities recently announced a $500,000 endowment gift to fund the Northeast Utilities Foundation Marine Environmental Program. Interest earnings from the endowment will provide internships and scholarships for students in the marine sciences undergraduate and graduate degree programs on both the Avery Point and the Storrs campuses.
The gift owes its genesis to a longstanding relationship between Whitlatch and Northeast Utilities. For a number of years, he has advised the company on matters related to the environmental impact of the company's formerly owned Millstone power plants, located at the junction of the Niantic River and Long Island Sound. As a member of the utility's Ecological Advisory Committee, part of his role was to provide unbiased reviews of the internal environmental impact reports produced by Northeast Utilities scientists.
It was through this committee that he first became acquainted with Dennis Welch, then vice president of environment, safety and ethics for Northeast Utilities. Through their frequent interactions and a shared interest in the environment, the two men gradually struck upon the idea of establishing a Northeast Utilities-funded internship program for undergraduates in marine sciences. This program has been in place since 1996, providing opportunities for four to five students each year to work on summer research projects related to their chosen field of study.
"Dennis Welch and Northeast Utilities have been extremely strong advocates for interfacing with the University. In particular, I think they valued the objective assessments and advice I was able to provide on areas of sensitive environmental concern," says Whitlatch. "At the same time, both sides of the relationship have benefited from the association."
When Dennis Welch was promoted recently to president and COO of Northeast Utilities' Yankee Gas subsidiary, Whitlatch was concerned that funding for the internship program might be discontinued. After all, Yankee Gas has less of a marine interface to its operation than Northeast Utilities' power-generating division. But his concern turned out to be unfounded. Last month, Northeast Utilities increased its commitment by agreeing to provide $100,000 a year for five years to fund the new endowment.
"It's a testimony to the strong relationship we've built with NU over the years," Whitlatch says. "Often, it's just a matter of talking with people, taking the initiative in pointing out a need, and letting their enlightened self-interest take over. NU is a good corporate citizen and understands that its investments can help improve the economic climate here in the state."
In addition to scholarships and research grants for undergraduate and graduate students, the Northeast Utilities endowment includes provisions designed to attract students from underrepresented and minority groups who are interested in careers in marine sciences.
A strong scholarship component is just one of the bases on which Professor Whitlatch and the marine sciences department plan to build the premier research and teaching facility in the nation for coastal studies. Others include recruiting top-flight faculty and funding their research, and supporting a number of interdisciplinar y programs, such as physical oceanography and advanced environmental monitoring.
The Marine Sciences Program at Avery Point has been designated a Center of Excellence and a funding priority under Campaign UConn by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.
Whitlatch hopes the Center will play an important role in predicting global climate change, developing environmental policy, and discovering harvestable resources, as students learn firsthand about the interaction of earth, ocean, and atmosphere.
"With more than eight million people living in its watershed, Long Island Sound is the country's pre-eminent urban estuary," he says. "We must focus our future on this zone because of its vast commercial and recreational potential, and the increasing impact on the region as coastal populations continue to grow. Partners like NU that share our vision are key to achieving our goals and will ultimately benefit the state, the region and the nation."