DURHAM, N.C. – Out of a graduating class of 178 students, Hanna Marie Bliska and Elizabeth (Libby) White shared the Virlis Fischer Award for Academic Achievement for their top academic performance in the 2024 graduating class. The award was announced at the May 10 Professional (Master’s) Student Recognition Ceremony. 

The Virlis Fischer Award recognizes a Master of Environmental Management (MEM) or Master of Forestry (MF) student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment for their top academic achievement. That achievement factors in GPA, as well as a nomination from faculty based on: a student’s demonstrated leadership, initiative and engagement within academic and/or co-curricular settings; mastery of academic knowledge and a commitment to intellectual growth; impact of the student’s academic achievements on the Nicholas School or Duke University; character, integrity and ethical conduct; and collaborative spirit in pursuit of academic achievement. 

Hanna Marie Bliska with Dean Lori Bennear
Dean Lori Bennear (left) and Hanna Marie Bliska (right)

Hanna Marie Bliska, was an MEM student whose focus included geospatial analysis and community-based environmental management. Bliska is interested in centering community well-being and building climate resilience when managing vulnerable ecosystems and resources. While at the Nicholas School, she studied eco-cultural restoration and ways in which communities and ecosystems can reciprocally benefit from restoration. After graduate school, she seeks to work at the intersection of resilience planning, community development, and conservation. Advised by Rebecca Vidra, Bliska’s Master’s Project (a requirement to graduate) researched “Improving Access of Climate Information for Communities Vulnerable to Drought in California’s San Joaquin Valley”. Through interviews and GIS spatial analysis, Bliska found opportunities for the state of California to improve accessibility and applicability of state resources to increase community resilience to drought.

Elizabeth White with Dean Lori Bennear
Dean Lori Bennear (left) and Elizabeth (Libby) White (right)

Elizabeth (Libby) White was also an MEM student. As a research assistant for Duke’s Bass Connections program, White led a field team to estimate wildlife density using camera traps and distance sampling methodologies in Duke Forest and Ivindo National Park in the West African country of Gabon. Bass Connections places undergraduate and graduate students on interdisciplinary teams where they collaborate with faculty on cutting-edge research that spans subjects, demographic groups and borders. White’s field experience in Gabon became her Master’s Project, entitled “Camera trap distance sampling in tropical forests: assessing drivers of terrestrial wildlife abundance in Ivindo National Park, Gabon”. White’s methodology was one of the first uses of camera trap distance sampling in Gabon to estimate the density of multiple species in a tropical forest. The resulting regional baseline population data can inform conservation and wildlife management efforts. 

The 2024 graduating class of master’s students included 153 MEM students, three Master of Forestry (MF) students, and 22 International Master of Environmental Policy (iMEP) students. Dual degree students earning their MEM along with other degrees include Master of Forestry (10 students), MBA (25 students), Master of Engineering (2 students); a Master of Public Policy (3 students); and Master of City and Regional Planning from University of North Carolina (2 students). Thirteen students in the graduating class earned their degree through the Duke Environmental Leadership (DEL-MEM) program, the school’s distance-learning MEM designed for experienced working environmental professionals.