Having grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the collapse of the steel industry and the city’s subsequent revitalization, Michael Piehler’s childhood experiences left an indelible mark and inspired him to pursue his life’s work in understanding the human impacts on natural systems and designing solutions to restore ecosystems in need. His hometown city’s water and air quality were compromised by pollution, but ultimately improved as he grew up. He witnessed the comeback of sensitive species, like the Northern Pike in rivers in the city. Piehler also enjoyed the professional sports scene, watching the Steelers and Pirates win multiple championships—illuminating a city on the rise.
“It was a great time to grow up in Pittsburgh, especially for a sports fan,” he recalled. “It was an interesting time in the city where there were relics of its industrial past. It remained very polluted. There were days that I couldn’t go outside and play because the air quality was so poor. But through my time living there, environmental quality improved. There were ebbs and flows in environmental quality and economic prosperity.”
Now at the helm of the UNC Institute for the Environment (IE), Piehler will draw on his lifetime of experiences as an observer, researcher, teacher and convener to lead an environmental convergence at Carolina to new heights.
“From the air that we breath, to the water that is vital for life, environmental impacts affect us all,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson. “In our strategic planning for the future, we knew environmental research, education and engagement are areas of strength at Carolina and will play a critical role in the health of our state, our country and the world that we live in. By convening cross-cutting, interdisciplinary research across our centers, institutes, schools and colleges, we will serve as a leader in understanding environmental conditions and factors that influence them. We are excited Michael Piehler will bring his creativity and collaborative spirit to lead the UNC Institute for the Environment with a renewed charge to spotlight and enhance Carolina’s groundbreaking work tackling the world’s most complex and pressing environmental issues.”
Over the last several years, Carolina has commissioned two pan-campus task-forces to re-imagine the role of environmental studies, research and programs at UNC. The exercise yielded many synergistic outcomes. For example, the College of Arts and Sciences recently launched its Environment, Ecology and Energy Program (E3P), enhancing and elevating its Curriculum in the Environment and Ecology. The faculty planning committees urged a convergence to spotlight the breadth and depth of environmental excellence at Carolina. Under Piehler’s leadership, the Institute will develop a “front door” for the environment on campus.
“We’ve had lots of strategic planning, now it is time for strategic action,” Piehler said. “There is a real opportunity to make big, broad, collective progress representing environment at Carolina as a whole. This is not about the Institute for the Environment alone—the goal is to fully engage the diverse pool of environmental experts at Carolina.”
As the newly appointed director, Piehler is planning to broaden the research enterprise of the Institute to strengthen collaborations and create new opportunities with partners across campus. Former interim director Dr. David B. Peden made headway in enhancing connections to environmental health sciences and will be a key partner in the future development of this important research endeavor. Piehler will continue to enhance and expand partnerships with other key units, such as the College of Arts and Sciences and their new E3P curriculum, the Gillings School of Global Public Health and its Environmental Science and Engineering program and the School of Medicine, among others. Piehler also plans to enhance engagement with other regional partners in industry, policy and academia in the Research Triangle and beyond.
“While it is obvious we have environmental excellence at Carolina, we haven’t conveyed the breadth and depth. We are doing extraordinary work that is regarded as environmental. What we’ll be doing is shining a light on the collective whole of everything that is inside the front door so that internally, we can collaborate, and externally, people can appreciate all of the things that Carolina has to offer for the environment,” Piehler said.
Piehler is intimately familiar with the environmental academic ecosystem at Carolina having earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees here as well as holding positions starting with research assistant professor to full professor with joint affiliations in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Piehler most recently served in leadership roles as interim executive director of the UNC Coastal Studies Institute and director of graduate studies and admissions in the Curriculum in Environment and Ecology.
“It is possible to have a career at one institution, as I have so far, and I’ve been fortunate that that happened. The importance of this cannot be understated,” Piehler said.
But, Piehler’s career path almost went a different direction. With some exceptional undergraduate research experiences, Piehler found his niche.
“There was one period of time where I believed that I would go to medical school, but that was cured by reminding myself that I was terrified of blood,” he quipped. “I took great ecology and animal behavior classes at Carolina. One summer, I interned with UNC professor Dr. Robert Peet, primarily in the Duke Forest—that’s what sparked my interest in ecology.”
Piehler spent the year after earning his undergraduate degree in Washington, D.C., at an environmental consulting firm. He liked the work, but felt drawn to continue his studies in environmental science and engineering. Piehler was admitted to the Environmental Science and Engineering program at the Gillings School of Global Public Health to pursue graduate work.
The week after receiving his master’s degree, Piehler again found himself at a career crossroads. He learned in the same week that he was admitted to law school as well as funded to do a research project that would become the foundation for his dissertation.
“I thought about becoming an environmental attorney, but I decided at that time that research was what really excited me,” he said.
The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in the Alaskan Prince William Sound and the subsequent clean-up and environmental impacts piqued the interest of the environmental scientific community. Oil spills were a great fit for Piehler’s burgeoning research portfolio studying the connection between human activity and the function of natural systems. His dissertation research addressed ways to remediate oil spills by stimulating microrganisms to create nutrients that would degrade the oil without introducing other harmful chemicals that could potentially create other unintended environmental impacts.
While working with Hans Paerl, a renowned expert on nitrogen cycling and a UNC distinguished professor, Piehler further honed his focus. Nitrogen cycling is the biological or physical process of converting nitrogen into multiple chemical forms in an ecosystem. Nitrogen cycling is important for many ecosystem processes, such as producing energy in a living organism, or breaking down organic matter into simpler forms.
Once Piehler completed his Ph.D., Paerl and Piehler received a 5-year grant to construct a wetland at Open Grounds Farm.
“That was the first time that I had direct involvement in a large scale ecosystem restoration project and it definitely became a significant theme in my career. It cemented my interest in doing that kind of work; tackling tangible problems in significantly impaired ecosystems.”
In 2005, Piehler was promoted from research assistant professor jointly with the Institute for Marine Sciences and the Coastal Studies Institute to a tenure-track position with the Institute for Marine Sciences.
Over the years, he has built the “Piehler Lab” employing undergraduate and graduate students who focus on a range of projects that center around where the land meets the water and understanding how activities on land connect to ecosystems in the water. Their work quantifying the value of oyster reefs enhancing water quality through the process of denitrification has opened collaborations with the social sciences, like economics.
“It is a privilege to work with absolutely superior graduate students and undergraduate students at Carolina. A lot of the new ideas and much of the difficult work that goes into making exciting science happen are directly attributable to the great students that I’ve had throughout my time here. The highlight of my career is not a single event, but collectively the experience of working with these excellent students,” he said.
Piehler’s involvement with the Institute for the Environment began early in his career, when he taught a capstone course as part of the Morehead City Field Site. Over the years, he was able to teach several capstone courses and credits the experience as one of the most rewarding of his time at UNC.
“We are so fortunate to have these field sites – places with engaged faculty, where the culture of research is engrained. When the students come, they are part of real, substantial research and I think that is remarkable,” he said.
Piehler’s family also holds close ties with Carolina. His wife, Betsy, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Carolina in 1990. His eldest son, Owen, just graduated from Carolina and his middle son, John, is a rising junior. His daughter, Hallie, is a rising senior at West Carteret High School.