Published July 27, 2020

Troubled Waters

Scientist and his students work to preserve one of earth’s most precious resources and to steward the ecosystems around us.

Richard Lathrop Jr., an authority on natural resource management and landscape ecology, is an environmental monitoring and ecology professor at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the director of the Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis. He also co-leads the Sustainable Raritan River Initiative, a Rutgers interdisciplinary program that aims to restore and preserve the Raritan River System after years of industrial waste pollution. Under his leadership, a team of Rutgers staff and students have assessed the state of the Raritan River Basin to inform the work of policymakers and the wider public.

Lathrop also works on research projects related to water resources and watershed ecology, including identifying ways to enhance coastal communities’ resiliency in the face of rising sea levels and intensifying storms and investigating the role of back-bay tidal salt marshes as natural or green infrastructure.

In addition to his work on water resources, Lathrop also focuses on forest conservation. He heads a research team developing a web-based geospatial information portal to facilitate the dissemination and integration of New Jersey-centric forest resource information, which aims to promote management strategies to enhance the long-term resilience of New Jersey’s forests.

He also is the faculty director of the Rutgers Ecological Preserve and Natural Teaching Area, a 316-acre tract of land that includes mature trees, wetlands, and meadows. “I am especially interested in promoting civic environmental stewardship on the part of the Rutgers student body by reinforcing the notion that the Eco Preserve is theirs to use and value and that, consequently, they have a responsibility to steward it wisely,” he says.

Lathrop holds a doctorate in environmental monitoring and a master’s degree in forestry from the University of Wisconsin. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses and has led outreach efforts among environmentalists and scientists from other institutions.

The Johnson Family Chair in Water Resources and Watershed Ecology is designated for a scholar with deep expertise in examining biodiversity in ecosystems, particularly those of the Raritan River System.

The chair was created with matching support from James L. and Gretchen W. Johnson through The Cape Branch Foundation. Other Johnson family members provided additional funds through The River Branch Foundation and the J. Seward Johnson Sr. 1963 Charitable Trust.

In the Professor’s Own Words

How did you first get interested in environmental monitoring?

I use a variety of data sets and analytical techniques to monitor the state of our environment. I am interested in assessing the big picture, at the scale of watersheds, the state, and entire regions. Accordingly, I employ satellite remotely sensed and digital geographic information to capture a synoptic perspective. I got interested in applying these geospatial information tools in one of my first jobs out of college, when I worked for a firm that was pioneering the application of digital mapping technology to visualize and analyze U.S. Census data. I saw the power of the technology but knew I wanted to apply it in an environmental context. I sought out a graduate program where I could marry these two interests.

What worries you most about the threats to our water resources?

New Jersey has made great strides in protecting the quality of fresh water through stringent control of point sources of pollution. More insidious is the threat from nonpoint-source pollution and stormwater runoff from urban/suburban impervious surfaces and suburban/exurban lawns. Expected changes in climate over the coming decades include a greater frequency of high-intensity rainfall events. These high-intensity events often overwhelm our existing stormwater management infrastructure, resulting in a flush of sediment, nutrients, and plastics into our rivers that eventually makes its way to our coastal waters.

How would you characterize the students who volunteer on your projects?

I work closely with the Rutgers University Outdoors Club and the Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society on the Volunteer Trail Work Days I host every semester in the Eco Preserve. This is a very engaged group of students who have taken on an aspect of “ownership” of the preserve and want to give back.

What is the single most important thing you would like your students to take from your classes?

To become more observant of the world around them—whether the natural or the human world. In my field courses, I will take them into the woods and have them find a comfortable place to sit for a half hour or so and just be quiet, disconnect, observe. These days, this concept is called mindfulness, or in Japanese, shinrin yoku (forest bathing). I have been doing this for 30 years. Many students find it to be a very moving experience, especially at night in the dead of winter out on the ice in the middle of a frozen lake under the stars or full moon.


This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.