New Center of Earth and Environmental Science director connected to soil

By Rich Schnieder, IU Communications specialist:

Soil has always been a presence in the life of Pierre-Andre Jacinthe, who recently took over the reins of the Center on Earth and Environmental Science at IUPUI.

It was the agricultural land around Arcahaie, the village in Haiti where he grew up, that gave the community and its residents a special identity. About 60 percent of the cropland surrounding the village was devoted to what the growers claimed were the tastiest plantains in Haiti.

Plantains and Arcahaie had been closely linked since the time of French colonization, said Jacinthe, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences in the School of Science.

And with that came a reputation of sorts, he says: “If you go anywhere in Haiti and say you are from Arcahaie, they will say, ‘that’s a plantain guy.'”

Pierre-Andre Jacinthe

Pierre-Andre Jacinthe

After finishing high school, Jacinthe knew he would go to university. But which school? He applied for admission to the schools of engineering and agronomy.

Jacinthe tried engineering for two months. When his application to the School of Agronomy was accepted, he was confronted with a choice. He turned to his mom for advice and was told to do what he believed was best for him.

Jacinthe decided to try agronomy. After the first week, he had his doubts but told himself, “I may like this school. Let me try again for another week. ” Four years later, he graduated among the top students of his class.

Soil has been at the center of his academic life ever since.

He attended graduate school in the U.S., earning a master’s at Ball State University in natural resources with a focus on soil chemistry and then a Ph.D. in agronomy with a focus on soil biochemistry at The Ohio State University.

“Even from my second year in college, I knew that my specialty would be soil,” Jacinthe said.

And it’s that specialty that Jacinthe believes serves him well in his role as director of the Center on Earth and Environmental Science.

“If you look at it, you realize the soil is connected to everything. It connects with the air we breathe in a number of ways, and most visibly it connects with the water we all drink every day,” Jacinthe said. “I could not have studied anything more appropriate to prepare for my work at CEES.”

Established by the Department of Earth Sciences in 1997, the urban environmental center has an applied environmental research emphasis that is important in bringing solutions to critical problems and gives CEES its uniqueness.

“I think our research focus on water quality in Central Indiana is well-placed because it is such an important issue,” Jacinthe said. “Most of our drinking water comes from surface sources in an area that is in transition between urban and agricultural areas. Most of things we are doing address that need.”

Jacinthe wants the center to build on its work and be recognized as the place for information on water quality in Central Indiana. “We’d like to be part of the conversation whenever anyone focuses on water quality.”

“Another part of the center that is essential — really important — is to do research, to see that research published and be available to the larger scientific community, and, most directly, to have research that has an impact in Indiana,” he said.

Education is also a key component of the center, including programs for elementary, middle and high school students.

One intriguing project is a collaboration between School of Science and School of Education students at IUPUI, Jacinthe said.

Scientists are often criticized for being poor communicators, while educators are often challenged by a lack of specific science knowledge. In the collaboration between the two schools, education students are helping the future scientists become better communicators, while the future scientists are helping education students deepen their knowledge of science.

Like with crops planted in the soil, “we have this cross-fertilization between science students and education students that hopefully will pay dividends in the future,” Jacinthe said.

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