CELS Alum leads the field in collaborative science, receives distinguished achievement award

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Aram Calhoun teaches wetland ecology to a group of students

When Dr. Aram Calhoun, Professor of Wetland Ecology at the University of Maine, Orono, first arrived at the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) in 1987, she found herself knee deep in wetland ecology; Calhoun was literally standing in a wetland, one of Rhode Island’s many red maple swamps.

“It was a visceral approach to wetland ecology,” Calhoun recalls of her classes with renowned CELS wetland scientist Dr. Frank Golet. In Golet’s class, she and the other Wetland Ecology graduate students in the Department of Natural Resources Science jumped from hummock to hummock (the small mounds of earth that rise above the water in a wetland) immersing themselves in the learning experience. “I just couldn’t get enough of it; I loved it,” remembers Calhoun.

Decades later, Calhoun is a leading wetland scientist being honored with URI’s Distinguished Achievement Award, one of the University’s highest honors, for her work protecting wetlands in Maine.

Aram_calhoun2“I’m still a student in my mind. So to be nominated, I thought ‘Oh my, I’m a grownup!’” says Calhoun of the award. She adds that there “couldn’t be anything better” than a nomination from the professors and the department that inspired her.

Calhoun readily admits that prior to jumping through red maple swamps in CELS, she already had a strong passion for the outdoors and was accustomed to playing in wetlands as a kid. But it was in CELS where her innate love for the environment flourished through scientific training. “URI was my first experience learning that you can make a career of studying wetlands,” Calhoun recalls.

At URI she also found kinship with other “science freaks,” as she calls her peers who were also interested in botanizing, or learning the Latin names of wetland plants after class. “URI was really quite pivotal in my education,” says Calhoun, who also holds degrees from Brown University, Rhode Island College, and the University of Maine.

After URI, Calhoun went on to spend her career studying and conserving vernal pools, the seasonal waterbodies that offer critical habitat for many amphibians and are threatened by ever expanding urbanization. As Calhoun explains, these sensitive habitats play a significant role in the greater forest ecosystem.

In Maine, Calhoun’s research was instrumental to the passage of rigorous legislation to regulate impacts on select exemplary vernal pools. Her successful implementation of what could have been highly controversial measures to conserve vernal pools and adjacent amphibian habitat stems from her collaborative approach to science. Calhoun includes stakeholders such as developers, real estate interests, economists, landtrusts, and municipal officials in a comprehensive decision making process. Calhoun and her colleagues ask, “What research can we do to help solve the problem of conserving pools while allowing communities to thrive economically?” This allows stakeholders to be involved in science and policy decisions at the ground level.

Her collaborative method is highly effective and is beginning to take hold elsewhere. “What is really exciting to me is that it can be exported to other states and it can inspire others,” Calhoun says of her recent initiatives to engage with natural resource planners in other parts of the country. “It is rewarding to work on one small system in Maine and to be able to have an influence at the local level, state level, and federal level.

 The broad implications of her research and her lifelong dedication to wetlands are reasons why Calhoun has been recognized with URI’s Distinguished Achievement Award. The award honors alumni and friends of the University who have brought distinction to themselves and the University through their professional achievements, outstanding leadership, or community service. Calhoun says the award inspires her to continue working to provide models for conserving wetlands in human-dominated landscapes, adding warmly that the work “is never done.”