Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Chris Underwood

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Pioneer Spotlight
Dr. Chris Underwood
April 22, 2016

Dr. Chris Underwood, an assistant professor of geography and a research associate in the Tree-Ring, Earth, and Environmental Sciences Laboratory, specializes in physical geography with research interests in biogeography and paleoecology. He was a lecturer at UW-Platteville from 2010-13, and returned to UW-Platteville in the fall of 2015 to begin his current position. He earned a Bachelor of Science in environmental health from East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, and a Master of Science and Ph.D., both in geography, from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Outside of the classroom, Underwood enjoys camping, hiking and canoeing.

When did you first become interested in biogeography?

I was particularly drawn to the science classes that took me outdoors in my undergraduate major: a water-quality class, an air-pollution class, biology labs and meteorology. When I started looking at graduate programs, the only geography class I had taken up until that point was a general education cultural geography class. I truly had no idea all the topics geography encompassed. The more I searched, the more I realized the subjects I loved were all associated with geography in some way – biogeography, geomorphology, meteorology, climatology. All of these sciences are nestled under the umbrella of geography. Once I figured this out, I had no choice but to enter a geography graduate program. I finally realized I’d been a geographer all along. It was a perfect fit.

What do you think is the biggest problem that we as a society are causing right now?

Where to begin…? There are so many important societal problems we could discuss, but I will stick with the field I know best. The increased rate of global change, especially climate change related to increased amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide in relation to the combustion of fossil fuels, ranks highly on my list. Certainly, Earth’s climate has been changing for millions upon millions of years. It’s only recently that humans have become a major factor in our ability to affect such drastic change. Here’s the kicker: not only are humans directly altering the environment, but the environmental changes instigated by humans directly affect social and environmental justice issues, too. It’s your classic positive feedback cycle, and a perfect topic of study for a geographer.  

What can we do as a society or as a community to help our environment? What is something we could do on a daily basis to try and help lower carbon emissions?

From an environmental science perspective, that’s really the biggest question of our time. It starts with education. It is unfortunate that so many people rely on misinformed (or purposely misleading) media outlets for information. Certainly, there are good media sources, but many are so politicized these days it’s often hard to get the truth. Properly educating ourselves about important global issues and understanding how the environment truly is acting and reacting to both natural phenomena and human-caused change are the best places to start. The thought process 50 to 100 years ago was that the planet is so large, there is no way a single species could become the single most dominant disturbance factor on Earth, but humans have become exactly that. Even today, a lot of people do not think this is true, but humans have become so efficient at altering ecosystems that I’d argue we are indeed the most powerful agent of change on Earth today. I still think that we have a window of time during which we can alter our behavior and slow the process of anthropogenic global change, but I think that window is growing ever more narrow. I think we need to act very quickly in order to leave a habitable world for future generations.

Confronting climate change is a very daunting task to tackle, and a lot of people say there’s “nothing I can do individually” that would make a difference; however, if every individual would commit to enacting a small change, the net result would be enormous. One of the projects I do quite often in my classes is what we call The Impact Project. This is a project that was developed by Alisa Hass, a former geography lecturer at UW-Platteville. The Impact Project challenges students to pick one thing in their lives to cut back for 30 days. She chose 30 days, because in her estimation it takes at least one month to create true change in one’s life. Students choose topics like driving less, riding their bicycles more, consolidating trips, and cutting back on red meat consumption. Most students, upon completion of the project, comment that it’s an eye-opening experience to see how much carbon dioxide they kept out of the atmosphere, or how much water they were conserving just by making minor alterations in their lifestyle. After completing such a project, people often become more mindful of conservation techniques, and we begin to challenge ourselves to apply the behavior to other aspects in life. Once you start conserving one thing, it becomes contagious and begins to snowball. A shift in one’s perspective often starts with grassroots activities like this. I am encouraged by the Millennial Generation; I read a short article in a major national newspaper recently that polled Millennials on their stance regarding major political topics. Millennials ranked global change and other environmental issues as one of the most important topics politically. This is a different outlook from that of many previous generations, and it renews hope for me.

Are you conducting any research at the moment?

Yes, there are a couple of major research projects I began working on in the TREES Lab last fall. In the first, my students and I are using soil and sediment charcoal to reconstruct 7,000 to 8,000 years of vegetation (forest and grassland) and wildfire history in the Driftless Area. The second is a dendrochronology project that looks at growth rates of eastern red cedar growing primarily on rocky outcrops within the state, mostly within southern and central Wisconsin. We are focusing on rocky outcrops because those areas typically have thin, well-drained soils – conditions that support highly climate-sensitive trees. Such trees are very responsive to shifts in climate, and by looking at patterns in the growth rings of these trees, we hope to reconstruct hundreds of years of past climate factors such as precipitation, drought, and streamflow.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I think the most rewarding part for me, and many other professors, is seeing a passion you have for a topic take spark and flourish in one of your students. A new student recently stopped by my office to declare geography as her major. We always ask students to write up a statement of purpose when they declare a geography major. Her statement of purpose reminded me of the reasons I first decided to study geography and Earth science – an insatiable curiosity about our planet, and a strong desire to make a difference in the world. It’s exciting when you see that connection, that common thread. It causes you to hope and think “that maybe I can help this student in some way achieve her goals.” That’s what gets me fired up about my job. The other rewarding part of my job at UW-Platteville is the encouragement I receive to teach in innovative ways. We take pride on this campus in promoting learning and development that occurs both inside and outside the classroom, and the Department of Geography strives to be a leader in high-impact, field-based education and undergraduate research. Oftentimes, students who work with me on research projects will say, “You know Dr. Underwood, when you talk about these things in class, it makes sense and all, but it never really clicked for me until I actually worked on the research project and saw how it applied to the science we discussed in class.” It’s exciting to see that light bulb go on.

Interview conducted by Kaitlyn Saeger, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications. To nominate someone for the Pioneer Spotlight, contact


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