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Phipps' new director of science education a perfect fit

| Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, 9:03 p.m.
Dr. Emily Kalnicky at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes lagoon on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Dr. Emily Kalnicky at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes lagoon on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.
Dr. Emily Kalnicky at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens' Palm Circle on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Dr. Emily Kalnicky at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens' Palm Circle on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.

When Emily Kalnicky was growing up in Madison, Wis., she liked to explore in her backyard, collecting leaves, twigs and rocks and building forts out of natural objects.

This exploration sparked a passion for nature and triggered a curiosity about how things in the environment are related to each other.

“I am really fascinated by the connection between things,” Kalnicky, 32, of Squirrel Hill, says.

Kalnicky's interests and career path — which include a triple major in undergraduate college, a master's degree and a doctorate — have led to her current position at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, where she became director of science education and research this summer, after moving here from her hometown.

Kalnicky oversees all science-education programs at Phipps for kids and the Botany in Action research program for college students.

Her biggest project, though, is creating an open-ended, multiphase Biophilia Institute, where scientists from Phipps, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions will conduct ecology-based research, and members of the public can attend workshops, hear speakers and otherwise engage with scientists. Biophilia means a love for nature, and the institute will explore this human-nature relationship with four points of focus: education and social justice, human health and wellness, ecological health and wellness, and communication and outreach.

“Within ecology, you have people, plants and animals,” says Kalnicky, who is single and enjoys cooking, hiking, biking and many outdoor activities. “My passion is really to help people come back to” their connection with nature, she says. That can be hard to do in the modern world, where many people live in green-deficient concrete jungles. But Pittsburgh is an especially green city, with several city parks, Kalnicky says.

“The goal is to take a holistic approach to understand and research biophilia and people's innate connection to the natural world,” she says.

The institute is a work in progress without an official timeline or targeted completion date, although development will happen in phases, Kalnicky says. It will be based in the 24,350-square-foot Center for Sustainable Landscapes, which opened in December 2012 and has earned a LEED Platinum status for its high green standards of energy.

Richard V. Piacentini, Phipps' executive director, says conservatory officials are “very excited to have Dr. Kalnicky on board and look forward to working with her on strengthening our research and children's science education programs.

“We will focus our efforts on human and ecological health and wellness, education and social justice, communicating science and connecting children to nature to foster in them an appreciation for science and the environment,” Piacentini says.

Kalnicky's career has led her all around the country. She earned bachelor's degrees in 2005 in zoology, psychology and Spanish from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 2007, Kalnicky earned a master's degree in natural resources and environmental sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, then followed with a doctoral degree in ecology from Utah State University in 2012.

Before moving to Pittsburgh in July, Kalnicky was living in Madison, teaching an online course on conservation through Miami University of Ohio and volunteering at the FairShare CSA Coalition, which helps connect farmers to community members.

She was searching for positions in three areas: academic, corporate and nonprofit. When Kalnicky found information about the job opening at Phipps, she thought, “This sounds really interesting.”

Kalnicky — who has won many awards and honors, including a 2009 induction into Xi Sigma Pi Natural Resources Honor Society — says that directing the Phipps children's education programs is an exciting and important role, because youth is the time when people's values about nature tend to be shaped.

“I would say we all, from birth, have kind of an innate strong connection to the world,” she says. But in life, through our experiences, we tend to pull away from those values, yet can reinforce them through our lifestyle choices, Kalnicky says.

She did her dissertation on Coqui frogs, which have become an invasive species in Hawaii. The frogs arebothering people because of their loud nighttime noises. Kalnicky took two trips to Hawaii to study the frogs,and examine how some people want to get rid of them while others want to coexist peacefully with the amphibians.

Mark Brunson, professor of environment and society at Utah State University, served as Kalnicky's primary dissertation adviser in 2007. He says he enjoys telling people about her invasive-frog topic, which sounds like a satire. Kalnicky's dissertation shows the same rarity of blended human-and-nature elements as her job at Phipps, Brunson says.

“The idea that we're going to study something that has to do with the environment, we're also going to study something that has to do with people, and we're going to do it simultaneously — that's pretty novel,” says Brunson, who usually sees scholars focus on either the environment or people — but not both.

“Emily is part of what I would call a new breed of academic scholar who has trained themselves to be skilled at the intersection between the natural world and the human world,” he says.

The job at Phipps, Brunson says, sounds like a great fit for Kalnicky, as she is part psychologist and part ecologist.

“It makes a lot of sense,” he says.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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