"Environment" research area

Forging a bright future for Minnesota’s environment and economy

A Q&A with incoming MnDRIVE Environment Director, Forest Isbell

By Mary Hoff

With the retirement of director Michael Sadowsky in January, MnDRIVE Environment welcomes Forest Isbell, associate professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, to the helm. A self-proclaimed optimist, Isbell lights up as he talks about his new role.

“I’m really excited about this opportunity,” he says. “And I’m passionate about MnDRIVE’s mission to align the University’s research strengths with key and emerging industries. It offers an opportunity to leverage our expertise to address grand challenges —right here in Minnesota— that will improve our quality of life and enhance the state’s economic vitality.”

What do you see as MnDRIVE Environment’s existing strengths, and what’s your vision going forward? 
First, I want to acknowledge the excellent work of MnDRIVE founding co-directors Mike Sadowsky and Paige Novak in building an exceptional team, supporting world-class research, and positioning MnDRIVE Environment for a bright future. 

From its inception, this program has been exceptionally strong in environmental remediation—cleaning up our land, water, and air. In fact, the University of Minnesota is ranked 10th in the world for biotechnology in part because of our strength in bioremediation. We’re also ranked second in the world for ecology, and we have more highly cited researchers studying the environment than any other institution worldwide. So, as we continue to build on existing strengths, I’d like to see our scope broaden to address other grand challenges, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and the degradation of natural capital and ecosystem services. 

As we do this, we need to prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice across our efforts. I believe Minnesota’s economy will benefit as we work with a diverse group of industry partners, policymakers, Tribal Nations, and members of Minnesota’s increasingly diverse urban and rural communities. 

How has your background as a researcher shaped that vision?  
One of the reasons I chose ecology as a career path is because we are now able to shift from identifying problems to understanding the natural systems and social systems well enough to identify solutions—and to implement them.

My research has considered how human activities, including nutrient pollution, alter biodiversity. I also study how changes in biodiversity alter ecosystem services and the benefits that people receive both from nature and agroecosystems. Increasingly, I am studying how efforts to slow climate change can be designed to conserve biodiversity and how biodiversity conservation efforts can be designed to slow climate change. It’s great to learn about these things academically, but we also have a responsibility to facilitate the implementation of sustainable solutions.

What other opportunities intrigue you about this new opportunity? 
I’m excited to work with some of the offices on campus that look at opportunities to help new businesses and startups—the Venture Center, the Corporate Engagement Center, the Technology Commercialization Office. I’d like to offer investigators like me — who haven’t yet taken their research to the implementation stage — an opportunity to see those benefits reach people and partners beyond the University community. 

What will success look like for you as director? 
To be successful, we need to demonstrate further progress towards conserving the environment and enhancing quality of life and economic vitality in Minnesota and beyond. I look forward to seeing the University’s environmental researchers share and apply their expertise in new ways and seeing industry partners find and implement new sustainable solutions. 

What gives you hope? 
Honestly, my kids. I have lots of answers to that question, but the first thing that comes to mind is my kids. Seeing them enjoy nature and being a part of it gives me hope that we can create a bright future where everyone has an opportunity to thrive and be inspired by nature’s beauty, strength, and resilience.