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  • Genevieve Fontana

Dr. Sue Margulis: Canisius eco-heroine

By: Genevieve Fontana, Contributor

Dr. Sue Margulis has been a changemaker at Canisius for over a decade. Not only is she a professor of animal behavior, ecology and conservation, serving as the department chair for over six years, but she is a professor of biology, as well. Margulis helped develop the minor in conservation and sustainability, a major in anthrozoology and the new masters's program in informal education. She serves on various boards, helped bring Laudato Si’ to campus and was one of the pioneers of the east/west community gardens. She is a primatologist who has been working in the zoo field for many years and her research focuses primarily on applied, zoo-based research questions. She shares her love for primatology with her students as director of the Team Ape research group.

Dr. Margulis is a dedicated professor, and she expressed that teaching and spending time with her students are some of her favorite things to do. She tries to make her classes as engaging as possible and strives to live up to the three pillars of academia — teaching, research and service. All of her classes incorporate a conservation component to them, focusing on positively impacting the environment her students are studying.

For colleagues interested in developing a sustainable pedagogy, she suggested adding an active part to lessons through which students can make a difference in the world. She thinks that aspects of conservation and sustainability can be infused into any course in order to create a more authentic learning experience. In her conservation biology class last fall, students did a social media takeover, picking topics that they thought were relevant to the Canisius community and incorporating take-home messages for folks to personally address the issues. The students researched everything from PVC plastic swipe cards to window collision prevention for local birds. She even encouraged her students to keep a single-use plastic journal and go through their medicine cabinets, refrigerators and other areas of their home to see how much single-use plastic they use in their homes.

She spoke about her connection to the text of Laudato Si’ as it points out our need to make a change. During the pandemic, she explained, she would be on Zoom calls with faculty, administrators and clergy from nearly every continent. She noted how interesting it was to hear everyone's perspective from all different areas of the world. It was more complex than she anticipated to get our college to sign onto the seven-year commitment, but the students’ voices helped to bring this plan to fruition.

Margulis is also very passionate about creating travel opportunities for her students. Most recently, her wildlife ecology and conservation course took a trip to South Africa after the conclusion of the spring semester. She mentioned that when students cannot travel, they have a biased view of the world: her trips, on the other hand, are an excellent opportunity to explore the conservation issues of people living in remote areas.

On her class’s most recent trip, they explored the fact that there is no recycling or trash pickup in South Africa. There is no way to get it from where the citizens are to where it would have to be, so folks litter all the time, “creating jobs” to address the substantial unemployment problem that that area also faces. Instead of recycling, their push is to use less. Another way that Margulis has seen sustainability implemented differently is through energy consumption. South Africa is without power for four hours daily; this concept is called “load shedding.” They are ahead of the curve with solar, and all the sights the group stayed at were run entirely off of solar or backup generators that are available because of load shedding. Each year, her students on the trip raise money for a cause that spoke to them on the trip. For this year the students will be “Recycling for Rhinos” by organizing a bottle/can drive to raise money to support rhino conservation; more specifically, the group hopes to support a pilot they met who does flyovers to assess rhino numbers and look for poachers. The collection will be starting the week of Oct. 16. Make sure to look for the bins!

Dr. Margulis lives by the quote, "We don't need 10 people doing sustainability perfectly; we need a million people doing it imperfectly." She makes the changes that she can — nobody can do it all, but everyone has to do a little something if we want to help our planet. She wants to continue reducing the amount of single-use plastics she buys and, overall, the amount of trash her family produces by composting her food scraps.

She hopes to see Canisius create a position of director of sustainability who can take charge, make things happen and spread the word about all of the work we are already doing in the sustainability space. She also expressed goals to ditch single-use bottles and that all vehicles on campus should be electric and move more toward 100% renewable energy. To those interested in starting their journey to become more sustainable, she suggests starting small and figuring out where you can integrate changes into your life.

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