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Environmental policy expert takes helm of IU Northwest’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence

Improving the region and its quality of life is central to Szarleta’s mission

IU Northwest file photo
Associate Professor Ellen Szarleta, Ph.D

Ellen Szarleta, Ph.D., has a passion for the environment that dates back to her childhood in rural New York. She has fond memories of planting trees with her dad, a biology teacher, whom she credits with instilling in her a deep connection with her natural surroundings.

“Over time, I wanted to find ways that I could help policy makers make better decisions about protecting those resources,” says the Indiana University Northwest associate professor, who chose her education and career path in accordance with that goal.

With a Ph.D. in natural resource economics from the University of Wisconsin, a law degree from the University of Iowa, and her undergraduate work in political science, the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) faculty member is an expert in the fields of law, economics and environmental policy.

Considering her background, Szarleta’s recent appointment as interim director of IU Northwest’s Center for Regional and Urban Excellence (CURE) seems only natural. 

CURE’s mission is “to facilitate authentic university and community engagement by advancing research, teaching, and service through collaborative, reciprocal, and mutually-beneficial partnerships which foster learning, scholarship, discovery, and creativity in education, economic development, environmental sustainability, health disparities, arts, and culture.”

Noting the plethora of issues worth addressing in the region, Szarleta describes Northwest Indiana as a “giant laboratory.” At the helm of CURE, Szarleta intends to make full use of that laboratory, leveraging the collective strengths of the university’s faculty, staff, students and community collaborators ultimately to improve the quality of life in the region.

Szarleta is no newcomer to CURE. When the center was first established, she served on the advisory board.  As co-director of the Northern Indiana Consortium for the Environment (NICE), a center initiative aimed at addressing regional environmental issues, she worked with stakeholders to advance environmental projects.  She also received two collaborative research faculty fellowships that were funded by the Lilly Foundation and awarded by the center. Her most recent fellowship grant enabled Szarleta to work with the City of Gary on reducing toxics in the community.

Szarleta appreciates how the Center engages with the community to meld scholarly research with action to produce positive results.  

“It’s an opportunity to apply knowledge to solve problems,” she explains. “In the process, we can teach our students how they can use the knowledge they are gaining in their classroom to improve the quality of life for their region. It brings together a real interesting mix of stakeholders and provides us with an opportunity to address some of the concerns that the community and university have.”

Szarleta’s personal vision for CURE encompasses teaching, learning and problem solving.

“One of the responsibilities of a university is to improve the community within which it resides,” she said. “I think there are lots of opportunities that can be presented to students to enhance their learning experience, to faculty to enhance their research, and to community members to bring their interests to the university and to engage with the university in solving problems.”

CURE is an umbrella organization for several other initiatives, such as NICE and the Non-Profit Institute, which provides education, research and technical assistance to local non-profit groups. CURE also supports faculty through funded research fellowships to advance studies of regional relevance.

Szarleta says one of her top priorities is to re-engage key faculty members who have been instrumental in developing projects of regional significance. Anxious to build upon the important work already begun by faculty fellows, she intends to cultivate new community relationships to foster their growth.

“There is real potential for CURE to become a centerpiece of the campus,” Szarleta says.

David Malik, Ph.D, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, agrees. He sees CURE as a driving force in engaging with the community to address its priorities and concerns in support of a better life for all in the region.

"I look forward to Dr. Szarleta's contributions to the Center. She lives engagement, both as a commitment and as a role practiced in her discipline in SPEA,” Malik said. “She understands the value of collaboration for our students and our community, and regularly ensures it as part of the courses she teaches. These experiences will help advance the Center's mission and connect positively and substantively with organizations within Northwest Indiana."


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Center for Urban and Regional Excellence