DURHAM, N.C. – The Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has selected Toddi Steelman, Ph.D.'96, former Stanback Dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, to receive one of the most distinguished honors in science, being named a lifetime AAAS Fellow.

AAAS chose Steelman for “advancing environmental science working at the intersection of science, policy, and decision making”. Her expertise in environmental and resource policy is recognized internationally, notably her focus on the theory and practice of collaboration in responding to wildland fire. “Toddi has always been years ahead of the curve when it comes to her research on people, disturbances, and governance,” said Jesse Abrams, a former colleague and current associate professor of natural resource policy and sustainability at the University of Georgia.  “She is meticulous in her work, precise in her analysis and writing, and bridges the academic and practitioner communities with ease. Her work consistently sets a high bar for the field and demonstrates the best of what engaged research can do.”

Steelman’s immersive research has explored collaboration as an alternative to more hierarchical forms of governance when addressing complex natural resource challenges, such as large, complex wildfires that spread across jurisdictions. Relentlessly working with practitioners, frontline fire managers, and agency decision makers is key to her success, she said. “You have to be ready to be where the decisions are being made and meet people on their own terms.” To do this, she qualified as a wildland firefighter to be able to embed with elite Incident Management Teams, which are dispatched or mobilized during complex emergencies to provide a command-and-control infrastructure.

“Community and collaborative capacity are now cornerstones of what is known to be effective efforts on the ground to address wildland fire—we aren’t just focused on technical solutions. Our research provided the foundation for the approaches and policies that are being enacted today,” said Steelman.

When asked if she is still optimistic given the trends related to climate change and wildland fire, she responded: “On the wildfire front…the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act have resulted in billions of additional dollars devoted to wildfire preparedness, mitigation and recovery,” Steelman wrote from an April 15-19 wildland fire conference in Boise, Idaho. Those investments are driving change on the ground. “It took a hundred years for the combination of forest management, human settlement patterns, and climate change to create the problem we now face. We aren’t going to get to solutions overnight,” said Steelman.

“We see the benefits of those investments every day out in rural areas, suburban intermix areas and, in the wildland, urban interface. We see a growing policy and political consensus related to the multijurisdictional complexity of the challenge and how federal, state, tribal, non-profit agencies and organizations need to partner to address this complexity…all areas pointed to and advocated for in my scholarship,” said Steelman. 

Dean Toddi Steelman assisting with controlled burn
Toddi Steelman participating in a controlled burn.

Her work in wildfire and collaboration have informed her current role as vice president and vice provost for climate and sustainability at Duke

University, where she leads the university-wide Duke Climate Commitment. She noted how climate change drives current trends in wildland fire size and severity. “We must focus on root causes.  Where better to do that at scale than at a university where you can take aim at significant societal problems like climate change through our educational, research, and public service missions”. 

Upon learning that Steelman was named a 2023 AAAS fellow, colleagues across the United States sent notes of congratulations and gratitude.

“Toddi has been a vital leader in natural resource policy and management scholarship for decades. Her work on watersheds, wildfire, and natural resource governance has really moved the needle, contributing not only to scholarship but also to improved policy and management,” said Cassandra Moseley, vice-president for research at Colorado State University while Courtney Schultz, professor of forest and natural resource policy at Colorado State University shared the impact Steelman has had on female scientists. “She has been an incredible mentor and champion for young scientists, especially for women working on natural resource policy and social science. She’s been a professional inspiration to so many of us.” A current advisee, Adam Lohman, Duke University Master of Environmental Management/Master of Forestry Class of 2023 student, said Steelman “has mastered the ability to not only conduct top-notch research that has real impact on people’s lives, but to share it in a way that is accessible to those who need it most.”

It took a hundred years for the combination of forest management, human settlement patterns, and climate change to create the problem we now face. We aren’t going to get to solutions overnight.”

-Toddi Steelman

Since 1874, the AAAS Council elects fellows annually in recognition of exceptional achievement in their disciplines. Steelman and other newly nominated fellows will be recognized at a Fellows Forum in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 2024. Read more about this year’s fellows from Duke University.

Martin Smith, George M. Woodwell Distinguished Professor of Environmental Economics at the Nicholas School of the Environment, was also named a 2023 AAAS fellow. He is profiled separately.