A Wide Search for New Core Faculty Begins—With A Focus on Health

by Maura Kelly

When the Schiller Institute conducted its first round of faculty hires, during the 2021-22 academic year, its interdisciplinary hiring committee focused on helping Seidner Family Executive Director Laura J. Steinberg build a superstar energy and environment team. The team’s expansive search, which took about seven months, paid off: They ultimately brought to campus two of the world’s most prominent climate scientists—Hanqin Tian, Institute Professor of Global Sustainability, and Yi Ming, Institute Professor of Climate Science and Society—in time for the fall semester. In the spring, the Schiller team welcomed their third core faculty hire from that wide-ranging search: Associate Professor Jier Huang, a chemistry expert who works on the cutting edge of solar power development. As 2024 approaches, Schiller is ready to take up another intensive search in order to find three additional Core faculty members. While last year’s search was focused on energy and environment, this year’s will primarily focus on the third pillar of the Schiller Institute’s mission: health.

Schiller is planning to hire two scholars who have extensive research backgrounds in understanding or reducing health risks affected by or arising from climate change. The Schiller team is interested in researchers who study how global warming is driving the spread of infectious disease, for instance; they’re also interested in those who look at how to alleviate such climate-driven health risks as cardiovascular disease, mental illness or food insecurity coupled with poor nutrition. They will also consider candidates who look at the impacts of climate change at any level—i.e. how it affects the health of an individual, a community, or the world.

“We’re looking for people who will have an immediate impact on the university,” says Steinberg. “By recruiting Hanqin and Yi, we immediately raised BC’s international profile, since they are both internationally-recognized scholars.” She is determined to duplicate that level of success with this round of hires. To find prospects of the highest caliber, the institute plans to search far and wide—though it is also open to looking more locally, too: Schiller welcomes recommendations from their Boston College colleagues.

A separate committee is looking for a social scientist—one whose work is focused on the transition to cleaner, renewable energy sources, or on how to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The Schiller social scientist would work closely with Professors Tian, Ming, and Huang; and might have expertise in socio-environmental systems modeling, environmental justice, climate resilience, or integrated assessment modeling. On the other hand, the new hire might focus on societal aspects of the transition to cleaner or renewable energy technologies, community energy initiatives, and energy poverty.

If these descriptions sound broad, that is by design, as Steinberg explains. “Not getting too specific allows us to attract the most outstanding faculty possible,” she says. “What’s more important to us than finding people with specific interests is finding experts who can have the largest impact both in their scholarship and as members of the BC  community.”

All three of the hires that Schiller plans to make this year will come in at the associate or full level. “We expect that anyone we hire will become a tenured professor,” says Steinberg.
As she did last year, Steinberg and her team have once again assembled search committees by drawing from a diversity of departments and schools across campus. The team responsible for making the health hire includes Professor Welkin Johnson, Biology department chair, who was closely involved with the hiring of Professors Tian, Ming, and Huang. He underscores Steinberg’s point about searching widely by saying, “We’re defining health broadly, whether it is mental or physical.” If the committee found itself most interested in a biologist—for example, “an infectious disease specialist who studies how climate affects emerging pathogens”—Professor Johnson would probably take the lead on the interview, and so on. But if the top candidate studies mental health, then the psychology professor on the committee, John Christianson, would be more involved—and the nursing professor, Karen Lyons, would step up if the top candidate specializes in patient health. 

All this said, Professor Johnson points out that the committees will be looking for people who have more than merely specialized knowledge. “Schiller is the institute for science and society, so we explicitly look for people who are not only leaders in their field but who are also outward looking—who go beyond focusing on the research, and embrace the idea of outreach to the public,” he says. “You could have a brilliant physicist doing great work. But if they are not outward-looking, maybe only their immediate field knows what they’re doing.” Such insularity would make them a bad fit at Schiller. “We want people who can do the research but also communicate their work to the public, and be sought out as experts on this—people who would have significant interaction with the press, journalists, news agencies,” says Johnson. “That is not the typical thing that scientists are expected to do.” But it’s what Schiller asks of its people, since a problem as far-reaching as climate change will never be solved in a vacuum. The kind of person Schiller will hire, Johnson adds, will be someone who goes “that extra mile to communicate about their work.”

The search committees have three members who have unique perspectives on Schiller’s hiring process: Professors Ming, Tian, and Huang. Professor Ming, a member of the health search committee, is glad to be a part of the search. Once the new faculty member starts, “we can potentially work together on a range of topics such as climate justice, community engagement, environmental policy and integrated assessment modeling,” says Ming. “The new hire would complement the existing Core faculty members by bringing new perspectives and insights to the mix.”

Professor Huang, a member of the social science committee, says she’s eager to help with the work of finding someone, because her new colleague should be someone “with whom I can directly collaborate in furthering the Schiller Institute's mission.” She continues, “We currently have three Core faculty members in the field of natural science. Appointing an additional Core faculty member in the social sciences will open up greater opportunities for the integration of science and society.” 

Professor Tian is also a member of the social science committee. From his perspective, the right person “will help promote and facilitate the integration and communication of knowledge across the physical, ecological, and human systems, which is essential for advancing scientific understanding of complex interactions among climate, ecosystems, and humans as well as providing science-based solutions to climate and environmental challenges.” He adds, “I think we can develop an integrated research program that couples natural-socioeconomic systems for tackling climate change and sustainability challenges.” He further points out that a new social scientist would have the opportunity to participate in existing climate-related programs at BC, like the Global Ethics and Social Trust Program, which hosts a working group that looks at how climate change affects migration.

The search-and-hiring process will take about six months to complete, by Steinberg’s estimate. Any candidate who gets a job offer will have to be enthusiastically backed not only by Schiller, but by the department with which they would have a joint appointment—like Biology, Psychology, Nursing, or Earth and Environmental Sciences. “We really value the interdisciplinarity of our search committees,” says Steinberg. “They model the collaborative spirit that we seek to encourage at Schiller, and that we look for in the candidates for the Core faculty positions.”