BAR HARBOR — Mount Desert Island native Susan Letcher is College of the Atlantic’s newest faculty member. She will begin working at the school in September 2017 as a professor of plant sciences.
Letcher, who earned a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Connecticut in 2008, is a plant community ecologist, primarily focused on the resilience of forests in the face of human-induced disturbances. She said she is looking forward to pursuing her academic passions while teaching within COA’s interdisciplinary program.
“Understanding the human-biosphere interface is critical for understanding ourselves and our collective future,” Letcher said. “I’m excited to be part of a community of scholars who recognize the importance of thinking across disciplines in service to this common goal.”
Letcher said that she is fascinated by the way that complex systems respond to change, and has been drawn to forests from an early age. After receiving a B.A. from Carleton College in 2000 with a double major in biology and music, she hiked the Appalachian Trail with her older sister. “The Barefoot Sisters,” so named because of their preference for hiking without shoes, wrote a pair of books about the experience.
After earning her Ph.D., she lived in Costa Rica for 2.5 years, teaching undergraduate study-abroad courses in ecology, research methods, and environmental science with the Organization for Tropical Studies. More recently, Letcher has been a member of the Environmental Studies department at Purchase College (State University of New York).
“Susan brings a spirited, collaborative sense of moving through the world,” said COA president Darron Collins ’92. “She is a brilliant botanist and human ecologist whose mind is wide open to exploring the diverse ways in which plants weave their way through our lives.”
Letcher currently centers her research on tropical forests in Costa Rica and other parts of the world. With an international network of collaborators, she studies the structure, function, diversity, and resilience of regenerating tropical forests and the impacts of climate change on mature forests.
“I’m really excited to teach at COA, where the curriculum is deliberately interdisciplinary and where students are deeply invested in finding their own paths,” she said. “I’m also really happy to be doing more field-based teaching, which is a kind of improvisation with the natural world — lesson plans evolve in real time depending on what we find.”
Letcher grew up in Southwest Harbor and graduated from Mount Desert Island High School in 1995. She has visited regularly since that time, and her connections to the area have long felt important to her, she said.
“It’s almost overwhelming to envision the moment when I’ll be back on the island for good,” she said. “When I was a teenager, all I wanted was to get out and see the world. It wasn’t until after I left the island that I realized what a special place it is and what a wonderful community it houses. I’ve been trying to find a way back ever since. This time, I won’t take it for granted.”
College of the Atlantic was the first college in the U.S. to focus on the relationship between humans and the environment. In 2016, both The Princeton Review and the Sierra Club named College of the Atlantic the #1 Green College in the United States. The intentionally small school of 350 students and 35 faculty members offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in human ecology – the study of how humans interact with our natural, social and technological environments. Each student develops their own course of study in human ecology, collaborating and innovating across multiple disciplines.