April 20, 2021
Michael Wimberly always had an interest in the outdoors, so it’s only fitting that he pursued environmental science. He grew up outside of Washington D.C., where he saw rapid population growth, expansion of housing developments and a plethora of green space.
“I think those are the sorts of things that sparked my interest in scientific approaches to studying the effects of urbanization,” he said.
This interest eventually led him to a professorship at OU’s College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences within the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability.
He holds a B.A. in environmental science from the University of Virginia, an M.S. in quantitative resource management from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in forest ecology from Oregon State University. After earning his undergraduate degree, he was hired by an environmental consulting firm based in D.C. where he worked on issues relating to air pollution utilizing technical computer modeling. He says he learned a great deal from this experience.
“It’s what inspired me to go back to graduate school to get additional education and eventually pursue a PhD; I could work my way toward having more independence in developing and leading research programs,” he said.
Wimberly says he wasn’t initially interested in a career in academia but pursuing graduate school helped him learn how to truly focus on his research.
“I think it was grad school and my research experiences that sparked my interest in pursuing an academic career,” he said.
He says he wanted to teach things relating to his own research and since this involves highly technical topics such as computer programming, geospatial analysis and spatial statistics, Wimberly fit best at teaching at the college level. As for what made Wimberly come to AGS, he says it was a combination of the strong reputation, supportive environment and collaborative colleagues.
“The College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences has a quite strong national and international reputation, so when the opportunity arose I applied for a position. You know, when I came here and met people it was delightful. When I got here and looked around and started talking to people, I thought, ‘Wow, you know, this is definitely a good place and a place where I think I can flourish in terms of my career,’” he said.
Throughout Wimberly’s career, his research has covered many complex topics. When he was at the University of Georgia, he had the opportunity to collaborate with some veterinary parasitologists on tick-borne pathogens across the Southeastern United States.
“They needed someone who had experience with land cover and land use, remote sensing and climate biogeography to help them analyze the data. They would take the information and use it to develop risk maps where humans would be most likely to get these pathogens,” he said.
He says it was a good fit for his background and research because it directly relates to ecology by utilizing his understanding of the organisms, types of hosts and how their distributions are related to forest cover climate, human land use and a variety of other factors. Recently, he’s been researching mosquito-borne diseases including the West Nile Virus.
“I currently have a NASA project where we work in multiple states such as South Dakota, Michigan, Louisiana and Oklahoma. I’m working with their state departments of health to take tech surveillance data and combine it with meteorological data sets and remote sensing data sets to make predictions,” he said.
The data found in this research can help determine the severity of the West Nile Virus outbreak for each year.
“I've done similar work in Ethiopia with malaria for a long time by working with their public health surveillance systems - taking that data and combining it with various sources of data and using it to develop an outbreak prediction system,” he said.
Wimberly was also part of a team that developed a web-based app to give West African decision-makers access to summaries of historical land cover and land use change data.
“We're really trying to work across the broader spectrum to both generate new knowledge and better understanding of these environmental phenomena and how people are affected by the environment advice,” he said.
He also mentions the importance of tool development, training and partnerships with various public health and forest management organizations. Regarding the future of environmental sustainability, Wimberly says building foundational science is imperative going forward.
“Where we are right now is trying to address more directly some of these environmental challenges and answer questions about climate change, human population growth and habitat loss, ” he said.
He adds that collaboration is key in this field of work.
“I think we're also challenged to try to do something about adapting to or mitigating the impacts. That leads to the types of projects that are difficult for individual people to do just by themselves. So, it's more about being ready and prepared to work in a collaborative environment – to be able to work with other people who have different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds is essential.”
When asked for advice for current students in this field of study, he says flexibility is extremely important.
“Think of your degree more as a license to think for yourself. It's not going to be something very narrow and specific that we've prepared you for at the university, simply because the world is changing so quickly. The problems are evolving so quickly. The hope is that we give you a bag of tools and the capacity to be able to do things,” he said.