A Classroom Without Walls

Despite joining CNU’s Department of Organismal and Environmental Biology just over two years ago, Dr. Russell Burke has hit the ground running, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses and conducting extensive research on oyster bed and shoreline restoration. His work takes him into the Chesapeake Bay and its many local tributaries, like the James River, in CNU’s backyard. Burke came to the University because he saw an opportunity to realize his goals of teaching and research, community service, and lifelong education. “Christopher Newport University clearly espouses strong principles of education, research and civic engagement,” he says.

Burke teaches a variety of courses, and CNU’s world-class facilities afford him the opportunity to delve into his work in tandem with students and faculty. “I have the privilege of interacting with a bright, engaged student body; working alongside supportive faculty; and conducting research that stimulates both myself and my students, and is relevant to the surrounding Chesapeake Bay and extended marine scientific communities,” he says.

He has championed oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay since 2004 as a PhD candidate in marine science at the College of William & Mary. His work involves evaluating the performance of different natural and alternative reefs as functional oyster communities. He has co-authored numerous articles, including one in Science, a renowned journal with an estimated worldwide readership of more than 1 million. Burke was part of a team in 2009 that won a Coastal America Partnership Award for its restoration work in the Lynnhaven River. The honor included a letter of recognition from President Barack Obama. He is also engaged in public-private partnerships with state and federal government and businesses like the Oyster Company of Virginia to capture the benefits of water filtration by oysters and provide economic incentives to those engaged in oyster aquaculture.

“My aim is to identify the criteria necessary to implement ecological restoration of the Chesapeake Bay’s resources while engaging students to actively participate in research projects that will enhance their CNU experience,” Burke says. He also helps students understand how to apply their classroom education to current, real-world research needs, and provide them the experience necessary to be competitive for scholarships, graduate school and employment after graduation. “I can only hope to inspire students to pursue their own dreams with as much energy as I have been fortunate to manifest in my years in science.”

Laura Andersen, a senior biology major, works with Burke to evaluate locations for the manmade reefs they hope will bolster the native oyster population. The work allows her to apply her learning beyond the classroom. “This research prepares me for a future job through firsthand lab and field experience and the introduction of potential employers. I am learning valuable things, and these are not the type that could just be taught in a class,” she says.

For Burke, CNU offers an enriching climate, both personally and professionally. “I think what makes the CNU experience unique is the opportunity [for students] to receive a world-class education with access to faculty, research and campus resources,” he says. “As a faculty member, I feel embraced in the same way and am equally fortunate to enjoy the fruits of a collective commitment to excellence at CNU.”