Emphasizing academic excellence and intellectual curiosity, Cornell thrives as one of the world’s leading institutions. Many academicians, in addition to faculty, contribute to the university’s reputation—lecturers, staff scientists, scholars, and researchers—adding their expertise to the mix. Their contributions can have significant impact in their disciplines, but just as importantly, they often affect meaningful change in the real world. In a two-part story, we take a look at some of their work.
Connecting the World with Research
For Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez, a research associate in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, solving real-world problems is a central aspect of her work. A former PhD student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell, Ruiz-Gutierrez knew from the onset that coming back to work at the lab would give her the chance to make a difference in a practical way. “I love science,” she says, “but it needs to be meaningful. You can say your research is applied, but it’s not relevant unless you connect with someone who needs it, someone who uses it.”
Ruiz-Gutierrez is a population biologist, conservation scientist, and quantitative ecologist, working with Amanda D. Rodewald, Cornell Lab of Ornithology/Natural Resources. Her interests span the range of quantitative research, including developing and applying statistical models to better understand bird and other wildlife populations. She also works with governments, agencies, and communities—mainly in Latin America—to help plan and carry out conservation programs.
“One of the great things about the lab is that we connect with people and organizations on the ground,” she says. “They’re already working hard to do conservation projects and research, and we provide resources and tools we have developed here to help them accomplish more. At the same time, we get data we can use for our own specific questions and projects.”
From Alaska to Chile, Conserving the Pacific Americas Flyway
This win-win scenario is central to Ruiz-Gutierrez’s current conservation project, focused on the Pacific Americas flyway, which stretches from Alaska to the southern tip of Chile. Known as the Coastal Solutions Fellows Program—a six-year, $6 million project co-funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation—helps engineers, landscape architects, and other developers connect with shorebird scientists. This enables the different sectors to inform each other’s decisions regarding coastal development and conservation.
“We spent a lot of time learning about what is causing bird population decline and about the main barriers for bird conservation along the flyway,” Ruiz-Gutierrez says. “Coastal development was a huge challenge for birds and for communities. We turned that problem into an opportunity for the entire flyway. Rather than thinking about how to ward off development, we moved to asking, ‘How do we cultivate people and the space for more sustainable ways to develop coasts and restore them?’”
The answer was the fellowship, which launched in the spring of 2019 with six fellows from Latin America—two landscape architects, one engineer, and three shorebird scientists. They immediately began to learn from each other and attack the problem of coastal development from new perspectives. “We’re creating a space of hybrids,” Ruiz-Gutierrez says. “I myself am a hybrid between the statistics world and the biology world. In that hybrid space where you see things through another lens, that’s where solutions happen.”
Along with her research and capacity-building work, Ruiz-Gutierrez was also elected to the editorial board of the Journals for the Ecological Society of America. In addition, she actively mentors postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates; and she is the faculty advisor for the Cornell Ecotourism Club.
Supporting Everything Around Us and within Us, Physics
Physics is all around us, underpinning our everyday experience and the basic processes that shape the world. Alan G. Giambattista, senior lecturer, Physics, sees that truth as centermost in his teaching. “Physics isn’t just something physicists do,” he says. “It touches on everything in the sciences in some way.”
“Physics isn’t just something physicists do. It touches on everything in the sciences in some way.”
Giambattista teaches introductory physics classes to students with majors where physics is not a primary interest. “Part of the task and the challenge is to demonstrate why physics is important, why it’s interesting, why they need to know about it,” he says. He has written two introductory physics textbooks: Physics (Fifth Edition, McGraw Hill, 2020); and College Physics: with an Integrated Approach to Forces and Kinematics (Fifth Edition, McGraw Hill, 2020)—which he originally coauthored with Betty M. Richardson and Robert C. Richardson and recently revamped as the sole author.
Giambattista originally wrote College Physics specifically for Cornell’s Physics 1101-1102: General Physics (Individualized Instruction), which he still teaches periodically. Up to 75 percent of the students who take the class at Cornell are biology and pre-health majors. Consequentially, Giambattista uses many examples from biology in his book to illustrate physics concepts.
“The examples help students see that by using the skills they learn in physics class, they can address questions of interest to them in their own fields,” he explains. “For instance, there’s a chapter in the book about fluid dynamics, and a lot of the examples are drawn from the circulatory system. We get into issues such as arterial plaque buildup constricting blood flow. We look at what that does to blood pressure and flow rates. It’s very directly connected to physics principles.”
Teaching, Writing, Making Physics Real
Because the majority of students in the class don’t have as strong a background in mathematics as traditional physics students, Giambattista’s textbook is less math-intensive than most. Surprisingly, it doesn’t include any calculus at all. “If you feel your students have the math background, it can be tempting to rely on that and skip the more conceptual, intuitive aspects,” Giambattista says. “With this class, you don’t have that option so much. That was an interesting challenge to me in writing the book and teaching the class. You really have to emphasize the physics concepts, then have the math to back them up. That’s informed how I teach other courses, too. Right now, I’m teaching a class for engineers who have a much stronger math background, but I try not to let that carry the load. I want the physics I teach to be as grounded in concepts and intuition as I can make it.”
In his teaching, Giambattista embraces active learning, which emphasizes hands-on activities and frequent interaction between students and instructors through discussion or problem solving. He is an enthusiastic proponent of Cornell’s Active Learning Initiative, which brings active learning to classes throughout the university. “The idea is that you become an expert at something through practice, guided by an expert who can give you feedback on how you’re doing,” he says. “I really like this pedagogy. I get to know the students much better—and one of the amazing things about teaching here at Cornell are the students. They are highly motivated, smart, interesting, and interested. They ask challenging questions, and that makes it fun to teach them.”