New vice provost helps focus Yale’s commitment to planetary solutions
Yale’s Julie Zimmerman, a globally recognized engineer whose research in green engineering laid the groundwork for a generation of safer, more sustainable chemicals, materials, and practices across industry and academia, has been named the university’s inaugural vice provost for planetary solutions.
Her appointment signals an important acceleration and elevation of Yale’s efforts to develop transformative solutions to complex environmental challenges, said Yale Provost Scott Strobel.
“Through a broad range of initiatives that include working in collaborative partnership with university leaders, faculty, students, and staff, Julie will focus Yale’s efforts on developing and implementing integrative solutions to the large planetary threats we face,” Strobel wrote in a message to faculty and staff. “She will also build alliances with non-profit organizations, alumni, industry partners, and donors to catalyze innovative actions for positive impact in addressing global challenges.”
Zimmerman is a professor with a dual appointment in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS) and the Yale School of the Environment (YSE). She will be moving from her position as senior associate dean for academic affairs at YSE to begin the new position as vice provost on Sept. 1. In addition to her primary appointments, she also holds a secondary appointment in the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) and teaches in the Yale School of Management’s (SOM) executive education program on sustainability and leadership.
Yale’s Planetary Solutions Project, which launched in 2020, is a university-wide initiative aimed at developing practical responses that will have an impact on Earth’s global crises such as climate, biodiversity, and the disruption of biogeochemical cycles.
“Yale’s commitment to finding solutions to these challenges is extraordinary,” said Michael Crair, vice provost for research. “With Julie’s expertise and leadership, we’ll be able to accelerate our progress as we develop interdisciplinary ideas and technologies that are innovative, scalable, and impactful.”
Zimmerman recently spoke with Yale News about her new role and how she will propel the university’s planetary solutions work forward. The interview has been edited and condensed for space.
What was the deciding factor for you in taking on this new role at Yale?
Julie Zimmerman: Without question the deciding factor was Yale’s strong commitment to planetary solutions. While it starts with the Yale faculty doing profoundly impactful research and teaching, and the Yale staff that puts in place excellent programs to advance sustainability, it was particularly moving to see President [Peter] Salovey and Provost Strobel make such a strong statement with the establishment of a new vice provost position. This sends a message to both our campus community and our external partners that Yale is earnestly taking its commitment to planetary solutions to the next level, and I want to be part of that.
How would you describe the severity of the climate and biodiversity crisis right now?
Zimmerman: It is tragically easy and inescapable to focus on the magnitude of the devastation that is happening in real-time due to climate change and our other global challenges. However, what is essential to understand is the complexity and interconnectedness of these challenges. One of the greatest strengths that the Yale community brings to the table is an ability to not only deeply understand these problems in discrete ways but also to realize that they are systems problems that require systems solutions. Everyone here understands that energy and climate change are inextricably linked and that climate change and species extinction and water scarcity and health disparities are all interconnected. And that is why all parts of the Yale ecosystem need to be brought to bear for genuine solutions that are resilient, sustainable, dynamic, operational, and adaptable.
You have been engaged in solutions-minded work for many years. What initially led you in that direction?
Zimmerman: Before I became a professor, I worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development and there was a lot of time spent on studying how bad our environmental problems were; how polluted the air is or how contaminated our drinking water is. It became extremely clear to me that we have more than enough knowledge about the problems to inform action; to solve problems. My entire career at Yale has been largely devoted to generating solutions and I’m so lucky to be a part of a community of Yale colleagues across campus who also focus on advancing a sustainable future.
What will be your approach in guiding Yale’s planetary solutions efforts?
Zimmerman: When you have as much talent and passion and resources as Yale does, the main thing you want to do is figure out how to support the efforts, multiply and enhance the efforts, facilitate coming together to realize even more synergies, and shine a big spotlight on the brilliant work so it has even more impact. After all, it’s all about positive impact.
How is Yale positioned to make meaningful advances in climate change solutions?
Zimmerman: I could write a book about all of the ways that the Yale community can play — and already is playing — an important role in addressing climate change through efforts that involve almost every discipline, school, and part of Yale. The necessary focus now must be on magnifying the impact of the current work — and growing future efforts — on climate, and importantly the inter-related challenges, so that we generate lasting and systemic solutions while avoiding unintended consequences.
What are the short-term challenges ahead?
Zimmerman: My first task is to listen. While I’m well aware of the breadth of brilliance that the community possesses on these issues, I need to deeply engage with all voices and parts of Yale to ensure that we bring to bear the full range of Yale’s capabilities. This work is too important not to engage all the strengths of Yale. But I need to do that with urgency because this work also requires action and is too important to delay that action.
How will your experiences at YSE, SEAS, and SOM inform your work as vice provost?
Zimmerman: When I came to Yale 16 years ago, it was a far more traditional university in that departments and schools were relatively isolated. Yale feels quite different today as evidenced by the Planetary Solutions Project effort in the provost’s office. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it is that interdisciplinary and cross-campus collaborations are a tremendously powerful force — and the places where the most innovative and impactful solutions are imagined. Involving all parts of our community — not just those in New Haven but in the broader Yale diaspora of alumni and partners — is one of our greatest strengths. If I can be part of helping to catalyze and facilitate unleashing the power of the Yale community to make progress on planetary solutions, then I will have the best job on campus.