Peter Marra, a leading researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, has been named director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative, the university announced in a news release April 3.
Marra, who holds a doctorate in ecology from Dartmouth College, will also serve as the Laudato Si’ chair in biology and the environment and as a professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy. Prior to joining GEI, which provides research opportunities for students and faculty to advance environmental preservation efforts, Marra worked for nearly 20 years at the Smithsonian Institution.
The position of GEI director provides Marra with more opportunities to directly affect environmental conservation efforts, Marra wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to move the needle from my current position at the Smithsonian,” Marra wrote. “So I had been looking for another position, preferably within academia, in which I could help do more to protect our environment, for people and biodiversity.”
Established in 2012 as part of the university’s commitment to address environmental concerns, GEI leads Georgetown’s efforts to advance the interdisciplinary study of the environment and conservation, according to the initiative’s website. Through a variety of programming, GEI aims to improve public understanding of environmental public policy.
Marra said that his past work studying bird habitats and urban ecosystem has prepared him to lead GEI in addressing key environmental issues.
“I’ve spent my entire career trying to conserve biodiversity through research, education and public outreach on an international scale,” Marra wrote. “Problems facing many individual species are the same large-scale problems we all face and must solve – climate change, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, pollutants, disease, and the list goes on and on.”
Georgetown University Student Association Sustainability Chair Rowlie Flores (COL ’22) said that students are often unaware of the university’s environmental initiatives because of a lack of communication from the administration. Flores said he hopes Marra’s work with GEI will increase the initiative’s presence on campus.
“I hope that with this new GEI leadership, we can increase student interaction with administration and that students become more familiar with sustainability efforts that the university has and is planning to enforce in the future,” Flores wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Among recent conservation efforts, students have worked with the Office of Sustainability on a composting pilot program in O’Donovan Hall, though the program has faced challenges with contamination in the composting bins. GUSA’s sustainability policy team has also recently implemented a Go Plastic-Free initiative that promotes sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic products.
Marra recognized the importance of student engagement with GEI, and plans to create new ways they can get involved.
“Our GEI goal is to create the conditions that spark and amplify student creativity, collaboration, thought, and action to protect our environment,” Marra wrote. “Students have to be an integral part of the GEI if we are to succeed.”
GU Fossil Free member Juliette Leader (SFS ’19) said Marra’s commitment to growing GEI and increasing student involvement is an important step towards making Georgetown’s campus more environmentally friendly. (Full Disclosure: Leader is a member of The Hoya’s editorial board.)
“I’m glad the university is investing in developing and deepening our engagement with environmental issues on campus, and that I hope the GEI will be able to expand its on campus presence and leadership under Peter Marra,” Leader wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Previous sustainable efforts made by the university include the recently established Laudato Si’ Fund, which will provide $300,000 in grants to student-, faculty- and staff-proposed projects seeking to combat sustainability challenges both on and off campus. Georgetown also divested from tar sands oil in June 2018 after a petition from GUFF, and is currently considering a second proposal to further limit its investments in any non-renewable energy company.
Over the next few years, Marra hopes GEI will help transform Georgetown into an institutional leader in the fight against environmental degradation through incorporating sustainability more deeply into the lives of students and faculty.
“Broadly, we will create an atmosphere at Georgetown that has everyone thinking about ways to incorporate environmental and sustainability thinking, attitudes and actions into everything they do,” Marra wrote. “We must act now to protect our environment. If we don’t do it, who will? I can’t wait to get started.”
Though Marra hopes to improve Georgetown’s environmental outreach, his appointment comes amid criticism against the university for a proposed solar panel project.
Student activists and local environmentalists recently urged the university to disclose the timeline on its proposed solar panel project in La Plata, Md., as the plan would deforest 240 acres of land.
Despite upcoming challenges, the chance to work directly with members of the Georgetown community on environmental initiatives presents a change of pace, according to Marra.
“I feel so lucky to be working with such extraordinary and committed Georgetown students, staff, and faculty to leave the world a better place,” Marra wrote in an email to The Hoya.
*This article has been updated to reflect the name of the Smithsonian Institution