Dr. P.K. Ramachandran Nair
UF School of Forest Resources and Conservation
2005-2006 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
The educational programs dealing with natural resources and land management in the United States are being positioned to produce graduates who are prepared to deal with complex science and policy issues as well as changing societal and global paradigms. The remarkable advances of the past in enhancing productivity of agricultural and forestry enterprises are now being overwhelmed by the growing concerns about their impact on the environment and the society at large. In order to deal effectively with these emerging problems, educational programs have to adopt integrated and multidisciplinary approaches. Given the University of Florida’s geographical proximity to the developing nations of the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, and our preeminent status as a citadel of tropical and subtropical studies, the global community expects us to maintain a leading position in our capability to deal with scientific land-management issues in the tropics, especially in the LAC region. These were the factors that led to the realization of the need for a new program in agroforestry, and my subsequent arrival here in the late 1980s. The momentum for such multidisciplinary studies integrating international issues with domestic agendas has been further fueled by repeatedly reemphasized commitments of the university and IFAS leadership to globalization.
In this scenario, my graduate instruction is based on the philosophy of providing an education that enables students to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills in natural resources and agriculture/forestry interface, in both the national and international arenas. I would like my courses to have a longer-term impact on the students during their professional career, rather than just being mere graduation requirements. Accordingly, my teaching and mentoring goals and objectives are to familiarize the students with the concepts and principles of the subject matter, expose them to rapidly emerging scientific paradigms in these fields, prompt them to think independently about the issues, and broaden their outlook. To accomplish these goals and objectives, I have structured my courses and mentoring to be inspirational and participatory, rather than just instructional. Since most of my graduate students are individuals with several years of postgraduate experience, I consider that the role of the professor and supervisor is that of a facilitator, rather than an instructor.
In a field such as agroforestry, which involves an amalgam of subjects, there is more experiential information than scientific data. I challenge my graduate students to apply scientific knowledge to understand the principles that determine the performance of these systems, and then suggest scientific, yet adoptable, ways for their improvement. My graduate students have conducted their field research in a number of overseas locations, in collaboration with local institutions (thanks to my elaborate professional network around the world). I work with the students and follow through such efforts right from early planning stage and make it a point to visit them in the field during the early part of their research, to set the path right for them. Although such interdisciplinary overseas research will mean more time for the students to complete their program, the students have so far been unanimously appreciative of the benefits they have gained from such experience in terms of both scientific advancements and career accomplishments.
The vehicles I use for innovative advisement include the following:
Agroforestry Communication Forum: An “Agroforestry Listserv” connecting all my current, and some former, graduate students (as well as faculty interested in agroforestry).
Agroforestry Group Meetings: A biweekly discussion forum during the regular semesters.
Conference Participation: All my students will make presentations at a major professional conference (at least once for MS and twice for Ph D students) during their program.
Peer Review of Journal Articles and Book Reviews: As editor-in-chief of “Agroforestry Systems,” a major international scientific journal, I engage my senior PhD students in various editorial activities.
Professional Visitors: I organize campus visits of distinguished professionals from various places. For example, I have had a major involvement in organizing the visits to campus of four ET York Distinguished Lecturers during the past eight years. Over the years, this has turned out to be very useful for the students.
Furthermore, the first World Congress of Agroforestry (Orlando FL, June-July 2004), of which I was chair of the Global Organizing Committee — see this WCA Website — gave the students an enormous opportunity to interact with the peers and world community in this subject, and to get used to the organization of such events. The congress brought together several of my former students, and thus gave the current students a great opportunity to interact with some of their “predecessors” and other peers.
I believe that the advisor/advisee relationship involves a permanent bond. Thus, I maintain close contacts with most my former graduate students in different parts of the world.
Quality and Accomplishments of Graduate Students
Over the years, I have attracted several top-quality graduate students to the UF School of Forest Resources and Conservation to work not only under my supervision, but also with other, especially new, faculty colleagues. My students have earned prestigious, campuswide awards including the Named-Presidential, Minority and Alumni Fellowships and Fulbright Scholarships; several are fully funded international students. Two of my students won graduate research fellowships under the US National Security Exchange Program in 2001. Two of my former students (Reinhold Muschler, PhD, 1998, and John Bellow, PhD, 2004) were awarded the IUFRO(International Union of Forest Research Organizations) Outstanding Doctoral Research Awards that are given to seven forestry scientists worldwide each five-year term. This marked the first time in IUFRO’s 100-plus years of history that a professor and his/her student independently received the highest level of recognition for separate scientific accomplishments at the same world event (2005), as well as for two students of the same professor receiving global recognition in two consecutive five-year terms.
During the past 15 years, I have graduated 16 PhD students (14 as chair; two as co-chair) and 20 master’s degree students, and served on more than 50 other graduate committees across campus. Currently I supervise seven PhD students (as chair). About half of my students (former and current) are US nationals; the others represent 15 countries. All 16 PhD recipients pursued professional careers in public or private sector: three in US universities, and six as senior scientists in international research institutions in Africa and Latin America. My first PhD student, Dr. Bashir Jama (1993), has recently (September 2005) been selected as the Agricultural Advisor to the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) in New York City.
Personal Recognitions of Relevance (Past Five Years Only)
(1) UF/IFAS Graduate Teacher/Advisor Award, 2000-2001.
(2) Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2002.
(3) Barrington-Moore Award in Forest Biology, Society of American Foresters, 2004.
(4) International Awards in Agronomy (2000), Soil Science (2001) and Crop Science (2004) by the respective US national societies.
(5) Scientific Achievement Award, IUFRO (International Union of Forest Research Organizations), 2005.
(6) Three honorary doctoral degrees: Kyoto, Japan, 2002; Kumasi, Ghana, 2005; Guelph, Ontario, Canada (to be conferred in early 2006).