Meet UMCES President Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

July 1, 2024

Meet UMCES President Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

As the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) prepares to celebrate 100 years of working towards advancing scientific knowledge of the environment for Maryland and world, we welcome Dr. Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm as president, only the seventh in our history. A renowned ecosystem hydrologist, Dr. Miralles-Wilhelm has a career of over 30 years in academic leadership, bringing together his expertise with government, private sector, and international development organizations, most recently as dean of the College of Science at George Mason University. He will also serve as the University System of Maryland’s vice chancellor for sustainability.

How do you see your decades of experience applying to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science?
I have spent over 30 years working in the environmental field in academia, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and the international development community. This has given me a perspective of how an institution of the uniqueness of UMCES can make contributions that bring together science, policy, management and overall support towards solutions that are very much in need in Maryland, across the country and around the world.

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing the environment today in both Maryland and around the world, and what do see as UMCES’ role?
Our biggest challenge as a society is the enhancement of the overall quality of our lives while preserving the natural resources that support it. This is a very complex challenge everywhere in the world, and Maryland can serve as a laboratory-of-sorts to experiment, test approaches, learn and continue to improve. At the same time, there is a significant opportunity to both learn from what is happening in other parts of the country and the world and contribute to what we learn through our work. UMCES is positioned uniquely to address these challenges and deliver on these opportunities, continuing to be the most important environmental science knowledge enterprise in Maryland while becoming an increasingly important player globally.

What is on your must-do list as step you into this role? What goals are at the top of your list?
I think that a key important element of my new role is the coupling of the Presidency of UMCES while serving as the Vice Chancellor for Sustainability of the University System of Maryland (USM). This elevates the positioning of UMCES as the lead for environmental sustainability across the state system, and implies the very big challenge of finding a working model towards a cohesive environmental sustainability agenda that includes the other 11 state universities and three regional higher education centers. Establishing that working model, co-defining this agenda and collaborating with this large group of institutions is on my must-do list as I step into this role. Specifically for UMCES, this will mean launching a strategic planning process that tackles the challenges and opportunities I have mentioned, and embraces the larger role of UMCES within the USM. All of this will require significant fundraising, and this is at the very top of my list since Day 1.

You are joining UMCES as the university prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary. What do you see in UMCES’ future?
I see an institution that will enter its second century with a renewed sense of mission and purpose, focused on delivering solutions to pressing challenges such as environmental security (water, energy, food), climate change mitigation and adaptation, nature-based solutions to improve the quality of our rural and urban environments, public health, the diversity of living species on our planet and shared prosperity. I see an institution that the state of Maryland, the country and the world can call on as an asset to address these pressing challenges.

President Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

Can you tell us more about your research and how your scientific portfolio intersects with UMCES’ core research areas of water resources and watersheds, ecosystem restoration, biodiversity, and conservation science?
I got interested in water related issues early in my career as a researcher. This led me to pursue doctoral studies in hydrology and how water connects to different systems in our planet. Water is to planet Earth like blood is to the human body. It is the vital fluid that keeps the life cycle moving. My research in hydrology has evolved over the years into an academic and practitioner career in water as it connects to a myriad of important components of our world: water and land, water and vegetation, water and climate, water and cities, water and health, water and biodiversity conservation, and the water, food and energy nexus. I have also been very fortunate to interact with a variety of organizations where water plays a strong role— governmental, non-governmental, private sector, international. This has given me an increasingly broader perspective of the water problem, how it connects to other societal problems (socioeconomic development, political, as well as environmental), while staying grounded on my basic skills in mathematical modeling and data analysis. More than 30 years has afforded me the time to work across these research areas and types of institutions that I think are a great fit for the challenges and opportunities that are before UMCES as it moves into its second century of existence.

You have done extensive work with organizations outside academia, mirroring UMCES’ own mission: creating actionable science that provides a basis for local, national, and global decision-making. Can you tell us more about that work?
I often say to decision-makers that the science needed to make sound environmental decisions today was probably available 10 years ago. I think this statement, although it is based more on instinct than actual data, is mostly accurate. There is a natural lag time between when science becomes available (published, vetted) and actually used in making decisions. One important example of this is my ongoing work with international development banks (World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank) on water-energy-food nexus policy and investments. Over the past 10 years, I have done this work in over 30 countries, working closely with decision-makers in the public and private sectors and helping to develop better planning and management approaches that are linked to their economic development policy and investments. I am currently an advisor to a committee of the Group of 20 (G20) that is focused on the analysis of how water constrains economic growth, basically by introducing water availability as a variable into macroeconomic models that are used by G20 countries in their planning and decision-making. This is an exciting and important activity because it can have important implications not only in each of the countries but also globally through international processes such as commercial trade and diplomacy. For me, it is personally important because it goes back to the entire reason I got into water as a field of research: to have a positive impact on the world through advancing science.

Additional thoughts?
I am beyond excited to join UMCES, to work with faculty, staff and students in advancing science towards solutions, to work with our partner institutions in the USM to provide thought and solution leadership to environmental issues across the state, to enhance our presence in national and international arenas in addressing local, regional and global environmental problems. All of this, while training and learning from the next generations of environmental scientists while having a lot of fun doing so. We look forward to living up to the legacy of a century of incredible accomplishments of UMCES and rise to the challenge for years to come.