Interview with Fulbright Scholar at Masaryk University: Dr. Fath

By Anjanette Jianna Umali

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Every semester, many students come to Masaryk University from abroad for international mobility programs. Although, not only students partake in such opportunities - academics also visit as lecturers or researchers from different countries all over the world.

Recently, I’ve had the chance to interview Dr. Brian Fath, who was teaching for the Department of Environmental Studies at the Faculty of Social Studies. Dr. Fath was appointed a Distinguished Chair in the Fulbright Scholar Program, and taught at MUNI during the Autumn 2019 semester.

So, Dr. Fath, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

My home university is Towson University which is outside of Baltimore, Maryland. I’m a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences over there, and I teach courses related to ecosystem ecology, environmental biology, and human ecology and sustainability. But, I also hold a Senior Research Scholar position at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, so I spend nearly three months every summer working right outside of Vienna. I know about the area pretty well from travelling, and coming here was a good opportunity to spend more time in the Czech Republic and Europe.

Could you describe what you’re teaching here at MUNI?

I’m teaching two courses: an undergraduate course, which is called Biophysical Resources and Socio-economic Systems - it’s a broad overview of environmental science topics, including ecosystems, human population, agriculture, energy, and climate change. 

The second course is a graduate seminar course called Frameworks for Sustainability. I co-authored a book which came out in 2018, called “Foundations for Sustainability”. So, after a couple of introductory lectures and framing the topics, we’ve been reading the book and discussing it. It’s been fun for me, because it is the first opportunity to discuss my work with students.

Could you explain how you came to MUNI and our faculty?

Fulbright offers scholarships for US professors to come and work in different countries. I had a Distinguished Chair position in 2012 at Parthenope University in Naples, Italy - so I was looking at the list of positions this past year. Out of the 30 or 40 of them, one of them was in Brno, which I applied for. 

This is a part of the world which I really enjoy, and it’s near Vienna where I’ve already got a foothold, so… It seemed like a good place to apply. The fit was really good too, because they wanted someone in sustainability topics, and my book had just came out. I applied and thought, “you never know”, and the offer came through.

What do you like about teaching at MUNI with a Fulbright scholarship?

I'm really happy to be here, and work with these students - the interactions with them are great. Language barriers are not an issue, and they come to classes prepared. They think about sustainability and environmental living very deeply, and it’s been a pleasure to hear their feedback. I’m learning from them too, because they’re looking at things in ways that I have not.  I would say that they have a more activist approach than the students I work with back in the US.

Since you are here on an international mobility program, what would you say is important about taking part in such programs?

Seeing different perspectives, understanding that places are different - places have different organisation, and even transportation can be different. 

For example, in Brno, you don’t really need a car to get around. This can be a nice reminder that things can be different, and it’s nice to get out of your bubble - you get to see that there isn’t just one way of doing things. 

Then, you bring those perspectives back to your home institution, and you can have a better perspective when talking to your students. It also works both ways - the locals learn more about international examples, and you learn more about them.

How do you feel about the university, and the Faculty of Social Studies?

The people are all super nice. The faculty are doing interesting and important work.  I expect to continue to collaborate with some of them, particularly on a project regarding network science.  I also enjoy the energy in the FSS building as there are always students around in the common areas - it is a well designed space for interactions.  In fact, Brno exudes a high level of youthful energy in part due to the large number of students in the city.

Is there something about Brno that particularly stands out to you?

As mentioned, I like that you do not need a car here.  The city’s a nice size - it’s not overwhelmingly big, but it’s big enough to have something going on. I think I’ve visited most of the theaters in the city and have enjoyed several concerts, operas and ballets, all at a very high level of performance... There’s wonderful architecture too such as the castle up on the hill, and there are also pre-war buildings,which you also get energy from. I also enjoyed the many festivals in the squares during the fall, particularly the Christmas festival which was a month-long open air party in the city! Brno is a very social city..

How would you rate Brno and Masaryk University for international mobility programs?

I would definitely encourage people to take advantage of coming to the city for exchange programs. From my experience, the city and the classes here have many international students and people, which can be a very enriching experience.

Do you have any advice for students? Not only for international mobility program students, but also for full-time program, and prospective students?

I think now’s the time to take opportunities and risks. Take things that are out of your comfort zone, and take advantage of the opportunities to travel more, learn more… Why not?

The following journal articles were published with MU affiliation:

Liang S, Yu Y, Kharrazi A, Fath BD, Feng C, Daigger GT, Chen S, Ma T, Zhu B, Mi Z, Yang Z. 2020. Network resilience of phosphorus cycling in China has shifted by natural flows, fertilizer use and dietary transitions between 1600 and 2012. Nature Food. Vol 1, 365–375. 

Kharrazi A, Yu Y, Jacob A, Vora N, Fath BD. 2020. Redundancy, Diversity, and Modularity in Network Resilience: Applications for International Trade and Implications for Public Policy. Current Research in Environmental Sustainability. In Press. 

Cazzolla Gatti R, Koppl R, Fath BD, Kauffman S, Hordijk W, Ulanowicz RE. 2020. On the emergence of ecological and economic niches. Journal of Bioeconomics 22, 99–127. 

Chen S, Long H, Fath BD, Chen B. 2020. Global Urban Carbon Networks: Linking Inventory to Modeling. Environmental Science and Technology, 54 (9), 5790–5801. 

Chen S, Kharrazi A, Liang S, Fath BD, Lenzen M, Yan J. 2020. Advanced approaches and applications of energy footprints toward the promotion of global sustainability. Applied Energy, 261, art. no. 114415. 

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