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College of Natural Resources
phone: (208) 885-8981
toll free: 88-88-UIDAHO
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875 Perimeter Drive MS 1142
Moscow, ID 83844-1142
Lee Vierling, mid-career award recipient

Vierling Receives Mid-Career Award

Life is three dimensional. Science should be, too.

That is why laser-based images of ecosystems are used to tell us more than traditional photos, satellite pictures, and even field sampling, when trying to understand the complexity of the natural world. Enter LiDAR--laser technology similar to RADAR that uses reflected light to help tell the three-dimensional story of how nature is organized.

The layers of LiDAR technology build to make a full picture, much like the layers of Lee Vierling’s career build to make a full picture of his impact on higher education. That impact was recently rewarded with Vierling receiving the Presidential Mid-Career Faculty Award from the University of Idaho. The award is given to faculty members who show commitment to learning, teaching and engagement.

“I like to look at problems holistically,” said the associate professor in College of Natural Resources. He and his students use LiDAR in much of their research to get a picture of all the layers of the ecosystem, not just the surface. 

“It’s like taking an MRI of a study area.  Since the first maps were made, scientists have been using 2-D tools to answer 3-D problems. Now we can capture the 3-D world, which gives us access to an entirely new frontier of understanding.”

From his doctoral work in central Africa, looking at atmospheric changes from biomass burning, to current research on climate change on plant life in Alaska, Vierling always includes human impact on environmental change. Questions tackled in Vierling’s lab include big-picture issues such as how to better map biodiversity, and charting 3-D variation in plant production. He brings that big picture back to the classroom.

“Connecting students to broader issues helps to prepare them to tackle real problems, starting while they’re here at the UI.”

His students not only earn their college credits but Vierling makes sure they leave with a better understanding of the larger world. For example, Vierling includes community service project requirements in many of his courses. While students do not charge for their community service, years they regularly return to campus with donations. With Vierling’s guidance, that money has been invested through, an entrepreneurial website that empowers people around the world to better their lives through small loans. The loans granted by students have since been repaid and reinvested to continue the multiplier effect of the students’ efforts.

“What keeps me going is to inspire students to keep thinking, keep creating,” he said. “Fundamental themes that students practice while at UI can have far-reaching impact.”

Those fundamental themes are found closer to home, too. Vierling is the executive director of the UI McCall Field Campus, home of the McCall Outdoor Science School. He first worked with MOSS seven years ago, leading workshops and training for K-12 teachers and students. MOSS is another way he is able to connect science to a broader audience.

“MOSS is a story of teamwork.  The passion and talents of so many have come together to extend the lasting impacts the University of Idaho can have on education and research in the state.”

In everything Vierling does, his emphasis is on the team.

“Collaboration is my favorite part. It takes a lot of people to understand the intricate scientific questions of today, and many more to take what we learn from these studies to help society.  It’s challenging yet fun, and I’m honored to be surrounded by so many talented folks who tackle problems as a team.  This award is as much about them as it is about me.”