Elena Irwin, distinguished professor of food, agricultural, and environmental sciences in economics and sustainability and faculty director of the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State, has been selected as a 2022 Fellow of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE), the association’s highest honor. Fellows are recognized for their outstanding contributions to the advancement of the profession of environmental and resource economics.
Irwin arrived at The Ohio State University in 1998 as an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics (AEDE) within the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). In the years since, she has become widely recognized as one of the most preeminent environmental and regional economists in the world, bringing national and global prominence to The Ohio State University through her cutting-edge research, teaching, leadership and contributions to public decision-making and policy.
“I have had the pleasure of knowing Elena for over 25 years,” said Tim Haab, chair of AEDE. “From graduate school, to pioneering junior faculty member, to a model senior faculty member, Dr. Irwin has not only excelled at every stage of her career, but has changed the department, the college, the university, the discipline and the world for the better. Dr. Elena Irwin embodies distinction in her career and in life in general.”
An intellectual leader
It is nearly impossible to overstate Irwin’s contributions to scholarship in the areas of regional and environmental economics and sustainable urban systems, especially as it relates to research on the spatial aspects of land use, for which she is widely considered an intellectual leader and pioneer. Irwin’s research has led to methodological advances and informed policy at the regional and national levels, positioning her as one of the most influential authors in the field of environmental and ecological economics. She has served as an investigator or co-investigator on a research portfolio of more than $16 million in grant funding from sponsors such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“Dr. Irwin is an outstanding scholar who has led the development of a new and now robust field at the intersection of environmental and urban economics,” said Catherine Kling, Tisch university professor of environmental, energy, and resource economics at Cornell University and AERE Fellow. “She remains on the forefront of that field which continues to see rapid growth, due in no small part to her intellectual contributions.”
Selected from a field of more than 350 qualified candidates, Irwin’s 2021 appointments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Bord (SAB) and the board’s Agricultural Sciences Committee, serve as a testament to the national respect for her expertise. In this role, Irwin provides guidance and suggestions to EPA policymakers on environmental regulations, including those related to drinking water and air pollution.
Blazing the trail
More than 10 years ago Irwin began studying the feasibility of an interdisciplinary sustainability initiative at The Ohio State University. Her work progressed and became instrumental in the creation of the Sustainability Institute at Ohio State in 2019. In her role as faculty director, Irwin provides leadership to interdisciplinary sustainability research and teaching across the university. The Sustainability Institute has brought together more than 600 faculty and researchers to make Ohio State a world leader in improving social, economic and environmental conditions across the globe, and to teach more than 1,000 courses that support sustainability and resilience education. Irwin has served as a mentor to more than two dozen core faculty of the Sustainability Institute, all coming from a wide range of disciplines across the university.
“My colleague Elena Irwin is not only one of the most talented, hardworking people I know, she is also one of the most generous,” said Kate Bartter, executive director of the Sustainability Institute. “Serving as Faculty Director of our Sustainability Institute is more than a full-time job. The fact that Elena continues to thrive as a scholar in her field while devoting so much time to lifting up other sustainability researchers is nothing less than inspiring.”
When Irwin joined AEDE in 1998, less than 5% of the faculty were women. In the 24 years since, Irwin has mentored many junior colleagues, particularly women. The department has grown to become one of the most diverse departments of applied economics in the country, with more than 40% of the faculty now being women. Irwin’s ability to break through barriers by successfully navigating and negotiating one of the first part-time, pre-tenure appointments at Ohio State served as a model for successful work-life balance and paved the way for other women who would follow in her footsteps. Irwin’s support has helped others thrive and made her a beacon for diversity and inclusion in her discipline.
“Elena is a great source of positive energy and encouragement that is necessary to stay motivated through an arduous process as a tenure-track faculty,” said Sathya Gopalakrishnan, an associate professor in AEDE. “In my early years on the faculty, she often reached out and offered informal mentorship not only through feedback on my research trajectory, but also in my leadership role at The STEAM Factory early in my career.”
Irwin’s mentorship, reputation and emphasis on well-rounded intellectual development and interdisciplinary research is a key reason many talented graduate students say they choose to study at Ohio State. Irwin has served as the primary advisor for more than 15 PhD students and supported them in obtaining tenure-track positions at a number of peer institutions. She has also served as a dissertation committee member for over 30 PhD students, supervised eight master’s theses and advised multiple undergraduate research theses. She received the North American College and Teachers of Agriculture (NACTA) Educator Award in recognition of her teaching excellence.
“I feel incredibly fortunate and honored to call Elena my advisor, my mentor and my friend,” said Wendong Zhang, now an associate professor at Iowa State University. “Elena not only cared about my academic success while I was pursuing my PhD at AEDE, but she also cared me as a person and my family. We still have the toys she got when my older daughter was born, and now that I am a teacher, I also admired her ability to leave the office at five every day to go back home with family, regardless of workload.”
Irwin’s Fellow selection was recently celebrated at the AERE summer conference in Miami, Florida.