Catawba launches new academic department

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 14, 2017

Catawba College News Service

SALISBURY — A department of environment and sustainability studies has been launched at Catawba College.

The department will house both the academic major and minor of environment and sustainability, which were formerly housed in the department of biology.

The new department has two new full-time faculty members, chairman Luke Dollar and visiting assistant professor Tyler W. Davis.

The faculty also includes associate professors John Wear, director of the Center for Environment at Catawba, and Sue Calcagni, who will continue to have a joint appointment in biology.

Dollar, formerly a faculty member at Pfeiffer University, is a wildlife biologist, conservationist and a National Geographic Explorer. Much of his research is focused in Africa, as he manages the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative. In Madagascar, Dollar also leads long-term research focusing on the ecology and conservation of the island’s largest endemic predator, the fosa, a carnivore found nowhere else in the wild that resembles a blend of the mongoose, hyena and cat families.

Dollar says his academic department at Catawba is seeking students who want academic adventure, to “move the world’s needle.” He has big plans for the new department.

“It’s a big world that needs big solutions,” Dollar said, “and training students to deliver those solutions is our mission. We will continue to help our students create and curate knowledge, and there’s a humility and strength that comes from understanding first-hand the context and magnitude of what it all means.”

Dollar also serves as an adjunct professor in Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He spent this summer in Madagascar continuing his study of the fosa, as well as a brief stint in Cartagena, Colombia, to present his research, alongside one of his graduate students, at the International Congress for Conservation Biology. He takes prides in sharing his research with local people to educate them about serving as wildlife caretakers rather than wildlife threats.

Dollar earned his bachelor of science degree in biological anthropology and psychology; his master of science degree; and his doctorate are in ecology all at Duke.


After earning his doctorate in civil and environmental engineering with a focus in water resources from the University of Pittsburgh, Davis went on to do research at Imperial College London. He worked with a team of paleoclimatologists, ecologists and environmental scientists to create an open-source model for testing new hypotheses on the controlling factors of vegetation growth.

“Developing this fundamental knowledge based on historical observations is crucial,” Davis said. “We must first understand how and why the natural environment around us works before we can predict how it will change under future scenarios.”

Davis spent two years working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Agricultural Research Service studying how the physical structure and orientation of crop roots influences their vitality under environmental stresses such as drought, nutrient deficiency and soil toxicity.

“Our current understanding of how plant life organizes itself and adapts below our feet is limited, but what we have found so far has significant implications for our global food security,” Davis said.

As a civil engineer working in the life sciences, Davis takes a multidisciplinary approach to address “grand challenges” in ecosystem science, plant biology and agriculture.

“Today’s grand challenges are complex threats facing the interaction between our environment and our own well-being,” Davis said.

He believes that solving these challenges starts in the classroom, which is why he is excited to be a visiting professor at Catawba this year.

In addition to his computational work, Davis has technical expertise designing environmental sensors and sensing networks, which has given him a means of collecting novel datasets to assess the environmental consequences from our utilization of our natural resources. He is eager to bring his technical background to Catawba College, along with over 10 years of experience working with geographic information systems.

One of his goals at Catawba is to embolden environment and sustainability students, as well as students across disciplines, with computational and technical skills that will be valuable in their postgraduate careers.

Students who have a demonstrated interest in pursuing an academic major in environment and sustainability at Catawba College may qualify for a departmental merit scholarship. Contact the Office of Admissions at for information.