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Lawrence E. Band, director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment, was named Ernest H. Ern Professor in Environmental Sciences and Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Virginia. He will step down after nine years as director of the Institute and nearly two decades at UNC on June 30. An interim director will take his place July 1.

Over the last nine years, Band oversaw the transition of the Institute from a unit largely focused on undergraduate education into a research and public service powerhouse.

“I am most proud of type of interdisciplinary work that we’ve been able to do,” Band says. “We have been able to win large research awards with faculty from across campus from multiple departments. We have done that while continuing to provide and build that nexus of innovative experiential education in partnership with other groups on and off campus. We also get accolades for really excellent environmental outreach. That is only possible by having great staff, great faculty and great students associated with the Institute.”

Last fiscal year, the Institute brought in nearly $5.5 million in external grants and contracts and projections show a larger increase this year.

“Larry has been an instrumental force in leading environmental research programs and projects that benefit our state, the nation and the world ,” says Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson. “His championship of interdisciplinary approaches to solving critical environmental issues will be felt at UNC long after he departs. I wish him well at UVA and with his future research endeavors.”

An unorthodox approach

Band joined UNC’s Department of Geography in 1998 as the Voit Gilmore Distinguished Professor of Geography, where he was department chair from 2002-07.

“When I first came down from the University of Toronto, I was taken aback by the students here. I remember hearing a really interesting and creative question asked from the back of the room during an advanced research talk, and I would turn around and see that the question came from an undergraduate student. Students at Carolina are dedicated, they are interested, they take an active role in their education and in creating an educational environment.”

Having grown up in the Bronx borough of New York City and spending summers “upstate,” Band was exposed to both city and rural life from a young age. Being able to understand and transition between rural and urban, and between different environments and disciplines is a recurring theme throughout Band’s career.

“Understanding how you could translate what you learn in a more pristine environment to an urban environment and use it to help manage and improve the environment and improve people’s lives is the crux of what I do every day,” he says.

He also distinguished himself from others in the field by taking an unorthodox approach, often seeking out and learning other disciplines to solve problems.

“Most of the rewards in academics had been in really specializing and being the best in a narrow area. I’m an integrator rather than a specialist, and have always found the most interesting questions, and the most challenging problem areas, were at the boundaries of fields,” Band says. “You have to be willing to go against the grain if you are going to do innovative things. This is why I am also interested in applied problems. Applied problems are not disciplinary—they are cross disciplinary.”

Other highlights of Band’s career at UNC include being named the Geological Society of America Birdsall-Dreiss Distinguished Lecturer in 2014, which gave him the opportunity to present 50 talks in the U.S., Europe, Australia and China. He became a Fellow of the Geological Society of America also in 2014, and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2015.

Band has established himself as a leader in his field, but it wasn’t until a chance opportunity from a college professor that he found his calling and embarked on a lifelong pursuit to translate fundamental science into practical solutions for people and the Earth.

A kid from the Bronx

Band’s parents, his father a television repairman and his mother a school teacher, enrolled him in the Bronx High School of Science.

“This was in the early 70s when the EPA was started, when rivers were catching on fire, when the first Earth Day took place and it raised my consciousness,” Band recalls.

Band took the basic math and science curriculum with an elective in urban ecology, but wasn’t locked into a career direction when he graduated.

He enrolled at the State University of New York at Buffalo and after two years of basic science and math courses and branching out into a couple of different majors, Band found his passion in geography with influences from engineering, geology and geography.

During summer breaks, Band drove a cab in New York City. Between his junior and senior year, he got a call from a professor inviting him to be part of a research project. He spent that summer on the mud flats of the Bay of Fundy.

“To me, being a kid from the Bronx and seeing faculty who would show slides of their field site up in the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia, I just couldn’t believe you could get paid to do that kind of stuff. And I wanted a career where I could be outside in interesting places and doing impactful work.”

Band worked with that professor through his senior year and was accepted to graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles. Band became interested in a field called geomorphology, the study of earth’s surfaces and landscapes. He also took a series of courses in geography, geology, math and engineering. Band found that his passions were both in the fundamental science and practical applications of the science—he was interested in finding solutions.

“When I arrived in Los Angeles, it was in the middle of a drought. There were major fires,” Band says. “The drought broke in the winter and then there were major landslides and all of these environmental processes we were studying became very immediate and very impactful to people living in that environment. You could only understand them by integrating the geology, ecology, climate and hydrology of the area, and where and how people lived.”

Improving lives with fundamental science

Band became committed to using his knowledge of the fundamental science and translating it into practical tools to benefit people.

Although he published his first paper on crop photosynthesis, his dissertation focused on measuring and simulating run-off and erosion. Working between and across different research areas became the launch pad for his career.

While working on his Ph.D., he took his first job as a lecturer at San Francisco State.

“They saw that I knew how to program a computer so they informed me I would teach geographic information systems – GIS – and I said ‘great, what’s that?’,” he quipps.

Band quickly learned the field, which enhanced his research trajectory. He began to observe patterns using geographic information systems and remote sensing, which uses satellites or aircraft to collect images and data of the earth’s surfaces. He used his hour-long train ride to and from work to teach himself other fields.

After two years, he was recruited to a tenure track position at Hunter College, City University of New York. Band began to pioneer work in GIS and image processing applied to watersheds. As a research fellow at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Band and researchers at NASA began combining remote sensing, land surface models and watershed models to integrate water, carbon and nutrient cycling in natural environments, which is key to assessing the impacts of global warming. The research drew on his and his colleagues backgrounds in geomorphology, hydrology, ecology, GIS and remote sensing.

Later, Band accepted a position at the University of Toronto where he continued this work for the next decade before moving to UNC-Chapel Hill.

Band used the integrative watershed models he developed with NASA in many real-world ecosystems, such as for the Province of Ontario to estimate the carbon impacts of forestry operations, a large, interdisciplinary NASA project in northern Canada, two Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites – the Coweeta project in western N.C., the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, and central China, among others around the world. His research has been designed to develop new knowledge and methods, and translate results into practical tools to help communities take an integrated view of how to best and most practically manage ecosystems to reduce pollution, conserve water, sequester carbon and reduce nutrient export to drinking water supplies and oceans.

“My interest in urban ecosystems, spans both fundamental science and applications of urban and environmental management. My work has expanded to include green infrastructure as both urban tree canopies and designed green infrastructure, such as rain gardens, forest buffers, to control stormwater, and improve urban environment and quality of life,” Band says.

The Next Chapter

Band is now taking his integrative watershed models to a cloud-based platform and make them widely available to scientists and community members alike.

“I have been eager to be able to spend more time on my own research and to have research that spans the fundamental science to the applied aspects. At Virginia, I’ll be cross appointed to strong departments of environmental science and civil and environmental engineering. It will give me close colleagues to do the fundamental science and to translate it into working systems. I’ll remain an adjunct professor in geography at UNC.”

Just as he looks forward to what the future will bring in his new role, Band reflected fondly on his time at UNC and the colleagues and friendships he made.

“My favorite place at UNC is sitting in front of a whiteboard with a series of smart people with very different backgrounds and puzzling out how to create new programs, new projects, new theories, new applications, how to creatively solve administrative problems, how to better do our fundamental research and engage with communities. I really enjoyed my time at UNC.”

Band and his wife Vicky have three adult children, two in the Triangle-region and one in Washington, D.C. Each of his children matriculated through the UNC System, with two graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill. Band’s son followed in his footsteps and majored in the environment.

“The three of them inspire our optimism about the future,” Band says.

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