Who is Eli Fenichel?
Dr. Eli Fenichel is one of the more recent additions to the Yale FES cadre of faculty. An assistant professor of bioeconomics and ecosystem management, Dr. Fenichel joined us in the fall of 2012 from Arizona State University. His background in wildlife ecology, agricultural economics, and resource and environmental economics has enabled him to bring a unique and valuable perspective to dynamic common pool resource problems. I had the opportunity to sit down with him this week to talk about his research, teaching philosophy, and tips for making the most of your experience here at F&ES.
Dr. Fenichel works at the interface of ecology and economics with applied math. His research applies capital theory to natural resources. He investigates how to make better decisions with natural resources as forms of capital, or if we view the natural environment as capital, how that affects management decisions. In short, he is concerned both with what we do and how we do it. He has found this style of inquiry to lend itself to a wide range of natural resource questions related to the “feedback connections between humans and ecosystems and the management of coupled ecological-economic processes.” Although at first glance his research, on topics including invasive species, fisheries and infectious disease, it may appear disparate, it is all linked by these central themes.
Recently he has become increasingly interested in issues of natural capital accounting; a research interest shared by an increasing number of F&ES students. He has found that local work in this sphere tends to be ad hoc and not well connected to theory. However, the theory tends to focus on very macro (country) level measurement. Fenichel is investigating how to downscale these theoretical approaches to make them match with local, on-the-ground work to more create more consistent and effective outcomes in natural resource management. His first real paper on this subject is slated to be published in a few months.
Dr. Fenichel teaches several courses at F&ES, including applied math and Nature as Capital. Like his research, his teaching, and his philosophy behind it, is strongly interdisciplinary. He draws from two deep pools of knowledge; ecology and economics, as well as a working knowledge of applied mathematics. This depth of knowledge, he feels, is critical to his success and impact. There is a danger, he warns, of spreading oneself too thin and becoming “shallow and broad;” a poor proxy for true interdisciplinarity. In each of his courses, he tries to offer students transferable, marketable job skills, and to enhance students’ abilities to think critically. He feels that specialized subject knowledge is secondary to those fundamental criteria. The issues that he focuses on in his teaching and his research all have an intertemporal and dynamic component that encourage students to see the patterns and connections across themes and disciplines. He encourages students to think creatively about how the tools they learn can be transferred and applied across issues to address problems in a novel way.
Just as each new professor is asked to develop a “teaching philosophy,” Dr. Fenichel feels that to make the most of their experience at F&ES, students should develop a “learning philosophy.” He points out that this is a rare opportunity to invest in yourself, your education, and your career and you should think carefully about what you want to get out of that investment. He encourages students to “build a problem-solving toolbox” that will be applicable in the long term and across a broad range of issues. Successful masters students, he says, should leave F&ES literate and numerate at a graduate level, and have a working knowledge of policy. Although your own work may not draw heavily from all three of these fundamentals, you should be able to critically evaluate the work of others to recognize quality information and spot illogical conclusions. This is especially true, he feels, of quantitative analysis, which he often sees students avoid.
Furthermore, Fenichel urges students not to become too specialized only in topical knowledge. Don’t train yourself to solve only one problem; if you are successful, you will place yourself out of the market. Diversify your course selection and expose yourself to a broad range of models, philosophies and tools. Identify and build the skills that you require and then apply them to your thematic area but keep yourself open to new ideas and opportunities. By exposing yourself to a variety of fields and focusing on tools rather than topics, you will improve your ability to think creatively and problem-solve across a range of issues.
He cautions, too, against placing too much emphasis on “educational success.” He advises students to take courses in which they might struggle, because learning and growth happen when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones. “If you’re not falling down, you’re not learning anything.” Finally, he encourages students to take advantage of their network, especially Ph.D. students, your adviser and other professors. Ask their advice, reflect and apply that knowledge to your advantage
Dr. Fenichel’s students reap the benefit of his pragmatic and creative thinking, as well as his enthusiastic and engaging teaching style. He works with his students to ensure that they understand complex material, especially important mathematical skills, and routinely makes himself available to work through specific course material or greater life goals in general. Every student I spoke with endorsed him as a strong mentor and valuable asset to the Yale F&ES community.