Share |

50th: Our Stories


Our Stories

The Nelson Institute’s rich history of excellence in education, research, and community engagement has been created and shaped by a number of visionaries over the past 50 years. We invite you to read stories about our leaders and their legacies here.

Erhard Joeres
Erhard Joeres

Erhard Joeres, interim director, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, professor emeritus, Civil and Environmental Engineering


When former interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Erhard Joeres began his graduate studies in the 1960s, he recalls very few people discussing the environment. In fact, he says environmental stewardship really wasn’t a part of the general population’s vocabulary.

So, when Joeres entered into a program at Johns Hopkins University that explored the connection between engineering and environmental challenges, he was excited to be among those addressing these challenging issues through an interdisciplinary lens. It was that first exploration of interdisciplinary research that helped to shape his career, eventually leading Joeres to join the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty in 1970.

For Joeres, the journey to the Nelson Institute began when he graduated with his doctorate from Johns Hopkins and began looking for a faculty position. Joeres had a fellowship planned in Germany, but before leaving for Europe he visited with leaders in engineering at various universities throughout the United States, including UW-Madison.

During these visits Joeres made several connections, but he became particularly close with Arno Lenz, a UW-Madison Professor and chair of Civil Engineering. Lenz and Joeres continued corresponding for some time and in the spring of 1970, Joeres was offered a position at UW-Madison for that fall.

Although Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) became Joeres’ tenure home, Lenz had been working with several other UW-Madison professors to develop an interdisciplinary program that would focus on water resources management. Lenz invited Joeres to represent CEE on the faculty committee of this new, interdisciplinary graduate program and Joeres was happy to become a part of the Water Resources Management (WRM) graduate program in the Graduate School.

At the time, WRM was five years old and supporting around 17 students through a grant from the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (WPCA), the predecessor to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The program addressed the subject of managing water resources at the intersection of the physical, biological, and social sciences, and for Joeres, the program was a prime example of the type of interdisciplinary work he had sought to participate in throughout his career.

“With these programs, there were no walls and barriers between disciplines,” Joeres said.

“There was a philosophy that the problems
to be solved determined the disciplines needed
to address them. Here people from different
disciplines had a common focus.”

In 1972, however, the WPCA funding ended and a new administrative home was needed for WRM. With the recent development of the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES), which eventually was renamed the Nelson Institute, the WRM Executive Committee voted to join IES.

“Although my tenure home was in CEE, I saw my professional identity also tied to IES [Nelson Institute],” Joeres said. “I was happy that CEE supported my being engaged in both and being a bridge to CEE, which sees its infrastructure mission as overlapping the domain of the Institute.”

Joeres remained deeply involved with the WRM program and IES throughout his career, serving as the WRM Program Chair from 1980-1988, with a break in 1983 when Joeres was a Fulbright Research fellow in Germany. Upon his return to campus, Joeres continued his work with IES, serving as the Chair for the IES Land Resources program (later renamed the Environment and Resources program) from 1990-1992.

In 1992, Joeres initiated planning for a new problem-focused IES degree option to address Air Resources Management, to complement the existing water and energy tracks. The program eventually became the Energy Analysis and Policy graduate certificate, which prepares students to become leaders in industry, government, consulting, non-profits, and other roles in the energy field.

Joeres also played a role in developing the structure of the Land Resources program, which allows students to define a course of study addressing environmental problems beyond the scope of traditional disciplines.

“The degree was originally named Land Resources as a way to showcase Aldo Leopold’s philosophy that everything in the environment connects back to the land,” Joeres said. “This philosophy captures the idea of the land as the common denominator for all environmental problems.”

While the name of the Land Resources program changed to Environment and Resources in 2008, its goal remains the same: to serve as an interdisciplinary program for graduate students who need the flexibility to customize a course of study appropriate to the environmental problem that interests them.

In addition to his role with the curriculum and programing, Joeres also participated in the start of the New Graduate Student Orientation Field Trip. This multi-day field trip is held at the beginning of the fall semester and takes students, faculty, and Nelson Institute leaders around the state to farms, nature reserves, rivers, dams and other noteworthy places to introduce participants to the range of environmental issues that exist in Wisconsin.

“I led the field trip for 11 years. Aside from introducing new students to Wisconsin’s environmental issues, it had the hidden agenda of introducing the students to each other,” Joeres shared. “I would get letters for years after saying it was the most memorable experience of being in graduate school.”

Ultimately, Joeres spent 34 years as a full-time faculty member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working closely with IES (Nelson Institute) for much of that time. In fact, after years of service to the program, including serving as chair of the Institute’s instructional programs from 1998-2002, Joeres ended his career serving as the Interim Director of the Nelson Institute from 2002 until his retirement in December 2004.

“IES [Nelson Institute] attracts faculty who want to work together in an interdisciplinary setting and it facilitates those connections,” said Joeres. “I’m proud to have been a part of a program that promoted faculty collaboration among disciplines. My hope for the Nelson Institute in the next 50 years is that it continues its dedication to interdisciplinary study and research and that its work contributes significantly to a better understanding of the environment.”


Jean Bahr
Jean Bahr

Jean Bahr, professor emerita, Department of Geoscience (formerly Geology and Geophysics


For University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emerita of Geoscience Jean Bahr, Earth Day has always had a special place in her life.

So, it was more than a happy coincidence when Bahr, a California native, accepted a faculty position in Wisconsin, the home of Earth Day. From there, it wasn’t long before she became involved with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, which is named after U.S. Senator and Earth Day founder, Gaylord Nelson.

A proponent of interdisciplinary research, Bahr found the Nelson Institute to be a place that transcends disciplinary boundaries and pays homage to the collaborative aspects of Earth Day. In fact, she became deeply involved with the Institute, serving as chair of the Water Resources Management (WRM) program for three years and an advisor for certificate students for many more.

“The Nelson Institute has been an
important anchor for undergraduate and
graduate training in Environmental Studies.”

“It’s an important unit for connecting faculty and staff with interests in environmental science and policy from across the UW-Madison campus, a home for several environmentally focused research centers, and a source of environmental outreach to the campus and the Madison community.”

In fact, community outreach was a large part of Bahr’s role with the WRM program, which prepares students to face the complexities of managing water resources through group practicums, and community-based workshops and projects.

“My most satisfying experiences have been seeing several Water Resources Management projects to completion,” said Bahr. “I was one of the leaders of the Token Creek project in 1997, which also led to some follow-up research projects by several of my hydrogeology students. Subsequent restoration work at the Culver Springs in that watershed was also informed by that workshop and our research, and I have enjoyed seeing the progress of those efforts over the last two decades.”

A hydrogeologist by training, with degrees from Yale and Stanford, Bahr has spent a majority of her career studying the processes that control mass transport in groundwater. From her early groundwater work in West Africa to her more recent experience as a member of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board appointed by President Barack Obama, Bahr has remained community-oriented and focused on promoting a sense of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“I am a product of the first Earth Day,” said Bahr. “Growing up in California and spending time outdoors is what got me interested in ecosystems, but as we face climate change and other pressures, it’s clear that programs such as WRM bring a lot to the table. Our graduates are snapped up by employers because our students know how to work together and they are trained in everything from the physical sciences to the social sciences.” Bahr says that it is this breadth of training that allows student to learn the “language of other disciplines” and gain new perspectives, something she believes is key to solving the current environmental challenges.

“The Nelson Institute model allows for faculty and staff to have a primary affiliation in a disciplinary department that best matches their specific expertise, yet provides connections for them to engage with others sharing interests in interdisciplinary approaches to research and education related to environmental issues,” said Bahr. “I hope that the graduate programs will continue to attract and find support for creative students who are willing to tackle the increasingly complex and interdisciplinary challenges that are likely to come from climate change, such as threatened natural resources, and needs of a large human population on the planet.”


Tom Yuill
Tom Yuill

Tom Yuill, director emeritus, Nelson Institute, professor emeritus, Pathobiological Sciences, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison


For more than 50 years, UW-Madison alumnus and professor emeritus Tom Yuill has been working with university leaders to expand interdisciplinary research and international collaboration on environmental and ecological initiatives. From his time as the first associate dean for research and graduate training at the School of Veterinary Medicine to his time as the director of the Nelson Institute where he helped to establish a partnership with the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, Yuill has been instrumental in the creation of community partnerships.

For Yuill, communities and systems have long been of interest. As a graduate student at UW-Madison, Yuill studied viruses and the way in which they impact ecosystems. When he graduated, he entered the military, serving as a medical researcher at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in that National Military Medical Center before travelling to Bangkok, Thailand where he worked for over two years before he says he realized he wanted to return to building communities at UW-Madison.

“I knew I could do what I really wanted to do at Madison,” said Yuill.

“The thing that attracted me back was
the tradition of interdisciplinary studies
and collaboration.”

When Yuill returned to Madison, he began working with the University on a research and training project in Columbia. With a background in Spanish and interest in community partnerships, Yuill was excited to travel to the foothills of the Andes to study viruses in disrupted ecological areas. In fact, Yuill enjoyed it so much that he continued this work for two years then part-time for over 15 years.

By 1981, however, Yuill had the opportunity to return fulltime to the Madison area to serve as the Chair of the Department of Veterinary Science and eventually as the first associate dean for research and training at the School of Veterinary Medicine. Yuill served in this role for 10 years, but eventually was drawn to a new, international agriculture program led by the World Bank and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This project sent Yuill to Bolivia, where he spent a year working on various projects. It was during his time in Bolivia that he learned of a directorship with the Nelson Institute, then the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES).

“While I was in Bolivia, I applied for the director job and soon found out that I had been selected,” said Yuill. “I knew this would be a fun opportunity to work with other disciplines and colleagues such as those in the social sciences and the humanities. I also knew that IES had recently gone through a rough patch, having lost its authorization to be a tenure home and having been without a director for nearly two years.”

While there were some challenges, Yuill said he was prepared to take a leadership position as he believed in the “good faculty engagement and wonderful students” at IES. After joining IES, Yuill said one of his first leadership decisions was to establish a Board of Visitors who could help to guide the future of the Institute. Yuill says he also worked with then Chancellor David Ward for IES to compete for cluster hires and reinstate the Institute’s authorization as a tenure home.


“My leadership approach was, when an opportunity comes along, to work with the Institute’s faculty and staff to help to make it happen,” said Yuill. “I am proud of the growth of the Institute in general and the ability it had to expand existing programs and develop new initiatives during the ten years that I was its director.”

During Yuill’s time as director from 1992 to 2003, he says he is particularly proud to have doubled the number of affiliated faculty. He is also proud to have helped to establish the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), which now has a number of faculty, research staff, and students working on environmental challenges in agriculture, air quality, climate, energy, public health, the urban environment and water.

“My greatest personal experience was the development of my appreciation for the importance of interdisciplinary interaction necessary to define and address contemporary environmental problems and support development of faculty and staff initiatives,” Yuill said. “Also, I was able to address the need for active international programs in order to broaden geographic and cultural horizons in an organized way. One of these, our interaction with the Universidad de Guadalajara in Mexico, remains active today and I am able to continue participation in it as an emeritus faculty member.”

While Yuill played a role in a number of significant Nelson Institute initiatives, he says he is most honored to be a part of the Institute’s legacy, which he says continues to “underscore and strengthen the campus recognition that interdisciplinary efforts are needed.”

“The Institute cuts across the traditional school, college, department structure. The Institute has provided a welcoming environment in which faculty representing a variety of disciplines can come together to establish new research and instructional initiatives focused on environmental problems that are beyond the scope of a single discipline. The Institute has created a setting in which established Institute programs can evolve and where new environmental initiatives can be created,” Yuill said. “My hopes for the future are that the campus will continue to recognize the importance of environmental challenges that society faces and will support the Institute as the unit able to address them through formation of future leaders, generation of solutions through interdisciplinary research, and their application through outreach to the public and to decision-makers.”


Barbara Borns
Barbara Borns

Barbara Borns, academic program advisor emerita


According to Academic Program Advisor Emerita Barbara Borns, there is nothing our current world needs more than the type of education offered at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. That’s why she is proud to have spent more than 25 years working with the Institute as an academic advisor and program leader.

From her involvement in the Land Resources, Environmental Monitoring, and Water Resources Management (WRM) programs to her role in the development of a pre-college program focused on Native American students, Borns has been a crucial part of the Institute’s mission to educate and inspire the next generation of environmental leaders.

A chemist and toxicologist by training, Borns joined the staff of the Nelson Institute as a graduate Academic Program Advisor on July 1, 1980.

"My first employment goal was to get acquainted with the students, faculty and staff in the graduate programs, so I started learning about them and was so blown away by the extraordinary things people were doing,” said Borns.

“One of the things about working at the Nelson
Institute is that you get to meet a broad range of
people from diverse backgrounds and I just felt
that meeting all of these people was exciting."

Borns was deeply invested in the Institute and soon became an administrator for the graduate program, which she says included recruiting students, helping them through the admission process, finding financial support and faculty advisors, supporting them during their programs, and finally keeping in touch with alumni.

Through this leadership role, Borns became a member of several committees, specifically those put in place to aid in student recruitment and retention. One such committee was focused on improving outreach to populations that were often underrepresented at the university. While serving on this committee, Borns traveled the state visiting schools and talking to students about the environment and environmental studies.

"One of the interesting things I discovered while visiting high schools is that many students associated environmental studies with birdwatching,” said Borns. “I would always say, ‘well, yes, it is birdwatching, but it’s also about the air we breathe, the soil we grow our food in, and the purity of water we drink.’ The students would often find that very interesting, but I didn’t receive a lot of strong interest in the program until I visited tribal schools in Wisconsin. While there, I never once had to explain why the environment is important, and that led to making a number of meaningful connections with the Native people around Wisconsin."

For example, in 1990 the Chair of the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) tribe reached out to Borns and the WRM workshop leaders to ask them to consider focusing their 1991 study on Blueberry Lake. That first opportunity to work with the tribe lead to a second summer, in which the LCO worked with the Nelson Institute on a pre-college program designed for tribal youth by 3 WRM students. The LCO tribal college was a supportive partner and offered their staff and facilities for classes.

At the conclusion of that summer, the Dean of the LCO college encouraged Borns and the Nelson Institute to continue the pre-college program. As a result, Borns continued the program for eight more years expanding it to include all the tribes in the state and beyond. While there are many highlights from this time, Borns notes that in 1998 she received a small grant from the USDA to pursue Environmental Justice topics with the tribes. That effort resulted in two main projects; a video called “The Center of the Earth” and educational materials for the Bad River Band of Ojibwa relating to protection of their sloughs.

"It was a lot of work, but I made a lot of friends, which I have to this day, and a lot of fond memories,” said Borns. “The Nelson Institute, and UW-Madison stepped in to help support the program financially as did the Wisconsin Natural Resources Department. It really ended up being a very interesting part of my life."

While the program ultimately ended due to a mix of staff and financial constraints in 2000, Borns receive the Friend of Indian Education award from the Wisconsin Indian Education Association in 2001 for her work with the program. Borns says she is honored to have been a part of a pre-college program that offered students an opportunity to explore college, while also facilitating positive connections between the Nelson Institute and Wisconsin’s Native Nations.

It was around this time that Borns became acquainted with Holly YoungBear-Tibbetts, then a geography PhD student. YoungBear-Tibbetts had heard that Borns was working with Native Nations around Wisconsin and was interested in connecting on the topic. Borns and YoungBear-Tibbetts formed a friendship and when YoungBear-Tibbetts graduated and was named Dean of External Relations at the College of Menominee Nation, the two developed a plan to create a new partnership between the campuses.

"In 2002 Holly asked me to draft a bridge agreement between the College of Menominee Nation and the UW-Madison-College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), so we worked on that together," said Borns. "We had a nice signing ceremony at the University Club. The agreement was originally specific to CALS, but it has since expanded to the full campus and led to a lot of good dialogue and connections between the two institutions." Borns officially retired in 2003, but has remained closely connected to the Institute as an Emeritus staff member. In fact, when Paul Robbins joined the Nelson Institute as the Director [now Dean] he reached out to staff and faculty asking them for ideas of places he should visit or people he should connect with. Borns wrote back to him and suggested that he visit the tribal colleges around Wisconsin, including LCO and College of the Menominee Nation.

"He wrote me back, said it was a great idea, and asked me to come along and arrange the trip,” said Borns. “So, along with a graduate student, the three of us drove up to the Great Lakes Intertribal Council, and then up to the colleges at Lac Courte Oreilles and Menominee. Paul has since taken a lead on this and expanded connections with tribal chairs. I feel really good if I played any role in getting that relationship and programming going."

In addition to her work with the Native Nations of Wisconsin, Borns remains invested in the alumni and students at the Nelson Institute. She often attends Nelson Institute events and says she enjoys connecting with those in the Nelson community. In fact, she refers to these fond memories and connections as “important events that occurred as a result of being employed at Nelson.” Although she notes that meeting her life partner, Fred Townsend while she was working with the Environmental Monitoring program remains one of the top memories in this category.

"Back in 1980, I really felt that joining the Nelson Institute was a good fit for me, and now all of these years later, I still get cards and phone calls from past students,” said Borns. “It feels good to have been a part of it and see all of the alumni around the world doing great things."


Sherman Stock
Sherman Stock

Sherman Stock, Legal Counsel for Senator Gaylord Nelson (1963-81)


Sherman Stock met Gaylord Nelson for the first time while Stock was a law student at Marquette University in the 1950s. At the time, Nelson was a state senator running for governor and Stock was a volunteer, who was campaigning for Nelson and driving Milwaukee-area notables around town.

Given his role in the campaign, Stock had several opportunities to connect with Nelson and the two quickly found that they shared similar interests, marking the beginning of a friendship that would last for over 50 years.

After their initial meeting in the 1950s, Stock remained connected with Nelson who served as Governor of Wisconsin for two two-year terms, from January 1959 to January 1963. In the early 1960s, Nelson became interested in serving on the United States Senate, so Stock, then a lawyer, volunteered to work for his election again. When Nelson won, he asked Stock to serve on his staff as Legal Counsel, a position Stock happily accepted.

Stock spent 18 years working together with Nelson, becoming the only member of the original staff to serve during Nelson’s entire tenure as a United States Senator. For nearly two decades the duo worked on projects that ranged from the humanitarian crisis in Biafra, Africa to the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, but above all else, they remained friends who were dedicated to environmental protection.

“Gaylord was my boss,
my mentor, my friend,
and my hero.”

“My time working for and with him was a marvelous experience. He was richly endowed with intelligence, humor, and the desire to do something great for humanity. His life story is a lasting legacy of selfless public service, that will inspire future generations to look beyond their own wants and needs, for the benefit of everyone. He left an environmental legacy that may never be equaled.”

Despite his strong legacy, Stock says it should be noted that the legacy didn’t just happen. He says there were a number of stumbling blocks along the way. For example, Stock recalls that 1969, the year of Earth Day’s birth, was a difficult year.

“The country was in a state of unrest due to the Vietnam War. College student groups vigorously protested against it. Gaylord was also opposed to the war, but decided it was time for protesters to direct, at least part of their energy, toward saving the planet. So, Nelson decided to spend most of his free time traveling the country to deliver that message and he instructed me to do the same in Wisconsin,” Stock said. “We both appeared before protestors; frequently with unpleasant results.”

But, despite continuing opposition to his message, Stock says that Senator Nelson never wavered from his belief that the health of planet was something that could bring everyone together. So, in the late 1960s after returning for a tour to the western states, Nelson met Stock at General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and started to share an idea for a “teach-in,” that would bring folks together to address environmental issues. The idea soon took hold across the country and the teach-in became Earth Day.

“Today, the celebration of Earth Day is a yearly reminder of what has been accomplished, and also a reminder of what remains to be done,” Stock said. “It is a lasting tribute to Gaylord and people throughout the world, who on April 25, 1969 answered the call to take part in a serious effort to save our fragile planet.”

In addition to Earth Day, Stock also has fond memories of the other environmental projects that helped to define Nelson’s legacy, such as their involvement with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Endangered Species Act, and their efforts to designate a portion of the Apostle Islands as National Lakeshore. For Stock, the Apostle Island’s is another reminder of Nelson’s tenacity and his unwavering belief that the health of planet was something that could bring everyone together.

“We thought it would be easy,” Stock said of their efforts to designate Apostle Island’s as a portion of the National Lakeshore. “It took 12 years to get it passed, and in addition, a visit to the area by President John Kennedy.”

Although the path to securing the Apostle Islands as National Lakeshore was long and tumultuous, Nelson and his team were able to complete the process in 1970. Today, nearly 80 percent of the Apostle Island land has been designated as federally protected wilderness and is named the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness.

“Gaylord Nelson lived a lifetime of dedication to the cause of environmental protection,” Stock said. “As a Wisconsin State Senator, and later Governor, he championed a steady flow of State environmental protection legislation; and then played a powerful role, as a three-term United States Senator, in awakening a sleeping nation regarding problems it faced and, he also offered realistic solutions. This is the legacy he left to the Earth and its inhabitants.”

blog comments powered by Disqus


Facebook logo   Twitter logo   Make a donation