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Master’s program prepares students to take local actions to address global crisis: WCSU/SCSU initiative trains new generation of biodiversity defenders

image of Michelle Bissett and Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Dora Pinou track carp in Candlewood Lake
Michelle Bissett and Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Dora Pinou track carp in Candlewood Lake

DANBURY, CONN. — The sobering warning from a United Nations-backed panel that up to one million plant and animal species face imminent extinction because of human activities has focused attention on the global threat to biodiversity — a challenge that Western Connecticut State University is tackling head-on through science-based training to address the crisis at the grassroots level.

In a collaborative graduate studies program offered through the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, WCSU and Southern Connecticut State University recently introduced the Master of Science in Integrative Biological Diversity degree. The program seeks to educate students about research methods used to measure the health and diversity of organisms and their environments. Students will learn to apply ecological, molecular and spatial tools to examine, quantify and describe biodiversity. “The Master of Science in Integrative Biological Diversity requires that all students engage in biodiversity monitoring as a component of stewardship, and learn to communicate the importance of diversity to human health and the conservation of resources,” the mission statement said.

image of WCSU students at Peabody Museum
WCSU students at Peabody Museum

Coordinated by WCSU Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Theodora Pinou, the new M.S. program offers a 30-credit curriculum. Faculty from the WCSU Biological and Environmental Sciences Department and the SCSU Biology and Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences departments participate as course instructors and research mentors. The program has accepted 14 students since its launch in January, and applications received through June 30 will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis for enrollment this fall.

Pinou explained that the recently released report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has raised public awareness of a crisis in rapidly diminishing species diversity that researchers in the field have recognized as a serious and growing global problem for decades. From the accelerating loss of open land to agricultural and commercial development to the impact of climate change and water scarcity on species survival, the UN-sponsored study has highlighted the many ways in which a growing world population threatens to destroy the fragile natural habitats and ecological balance that sustain global biodiversity.

At the local level, Pinou observed that the biodiversity crisis also has grown more acute as land development isolates remaining open space areas necessary to support the region’s many species of animal and plant life. Land use policies that ignore the importance of preserving natural corridors for pollinators to reach flowering plants and for wildlife to move freely across habitats pose a real threat to the survival of many species now found in Connecticut, she said. “Very few people even know what the level of local biodiversity should be,” she observed, and the environmental impact of diminished diversity “easily escapes us until we realize we have a water and food security problem.”

An important aspect of the biodiversity master’s degree program is to provide the opportunity for M.S. candidates to collaborate with a wide range of corporations, educational institutions, conservation and wildlife organizations and other partners where students can apply their skills and knowledge to real-world experiences in the exploration and monitoring of biodiversity.

“Our program has a required component of stewardship where our students go out to investigate biodiversity problems in the field and learn how the professionals are tackling these issues,” she said. “For example, we have a project in collaboration with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Norwalk Aquarium looking at diamond back terrapin crossings and road mortality.” The study offers an opportunity to explore how the public need for transportation can be balanced with actions to monitor and preserve this turtle species, she noted.

“We study the global dimensions of the biodiversity problem, and then explore what we can do locally to make policy decisions, rooted in science, that produce measurable changes to improve the situation,” she said.

Pinou remarked that through hands-on research in monitoring species diversity, habitat conservation, environmental threats to organisms and other issues, students will gain valuable experience for future careers that contribute to advancing resilience and sustainability. The program mission statement sets the goal of preparing students for careers in ecosystem management and reclamation, policy and environmental consulting, sustainable business, education and non-government organizations. The program is also appropriate for secondary education teachers interested in obtaining an advanced degree focusing on the ecological, physiological and natural history of biological organisms.

Pinou noted that graduates of the program will gain a deeper scientific understanding of the many factors contributing to biodiversity while also being challenged to apply these lessons cooperatively in the public policy arena. “There is a great need to be trained to understand the scientific data, consider all the stakeholders, listen to everyone’s interests, and address the most important problems collaboratively by building consensus,” she said. “For instance, if we need to develop more land to grow food, how can we do the plantings wisely so that we keep a corridor for animals and insects to move between open habitats?”

Application inquiries should be directed to Pinou at Application requirements and additional details about the program curriculum may be obtained at and at

For more information, contact Pinou at or the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.



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