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Meet Clarkson

Stephen Bird

Clarkson's latest convert

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Quick Facts +

Where are you from?
Ottawa, Canada, and Boston, Mass.

What is your favorite climbing spot in the Adirondacks?
Back end of Pitchoff Mountain (ice)

Upcoming class you're excited to teach? 
Energy Policy

Favorite restaurant/cafe/etc. in Potsdam or nearby towns? 
Sawaddee Thai Cuisine (when they’re not busy)

You can be forgiven for thinking that political science professor Stephen Bird has an identical twin brother in town. Or three. On Friday afternoons, you might see a guy who looks a lot like Bird playing bass guitar in a jazz duo at Maxfields. But then your buddy in the Clarkson University Outing Club may say that Bird joined a group of students ice climbing in the Adirondacks over the weekend. And on Monday, you may swear you spot the same guy in four different buildings having serious-looking confabs with engineering, psychology, math and business professors.

Has Clarkson started cloning? Nope. Steve Bird is just a busy, busy man.

“One of the benefits of Clarkson’s size is that you get to know a lot of people really fast,” says Bird. An energy-policy expert who joined the faculty in 2009, Bird was quickly pulled into a half-dozen research collaborations; signed on as the faculty adviser to the Outing Club and the Sustainable Synergy Group; and recruited as a side man to pianist Bill Vitek, a local jazzman who happens to be Bird’s department chair.

After academic stints at institutions such as Harvard and Boston University, Bird is loving the life of a social science professor at a smaller research university with a strong technical focus.

“Every day, I get a real interdisciplinary perspective that I wouldn’t get if I was in a political science department surrounded by 25 other political scientists,” Bird says. “My days are punctuated by conversations with Andreas Wilke, a psychology professor; with the mathematicians I’m working with on network analysis; with Tom Langen, a biologist; or the engineers I’m working with on an energy project for wind storage. It’s just really rich.”

Although Bird says he has become one of Clarkson’s biggest “cheerleaders,” he admits he was a little nervous to move from Boston — where, over the past 25 years, he had worked as a musician, married, had a kid and earned a PhD —to the town of Potsdam, N.Y., population 9,000. But Bird, an avid rock climber and music lover, quickly learned the benefits of living minutes from the East Coast’s largest wilderness area in a community shared by three other universities. 

Even though he’s new to the university, Bird was recently nominated to be the Clarkson lead in a state-funded research collaboration called the New York Energy Policy Institute. Clarkson, by the way, is one of only 18 state institutions recognized for deep expertise in sustainable-energy technology and policy, particularly its expertise in the Clarkson University Center for Sustainable Energy Systems and the Institute for a Sustainable Environment.

“You get this little explosion of culture, entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity,” Bird says. “There are free music and theater performances a mile away at the SUNY Potsdam Crane School of Music all the time, as well as activities happening here on campus. We’re busier socially in Potsdam than we were in Boston. It’s kind of nuts.”

Another thing that keeps Bird busy is trying to keep up with the students in the two clubs he advises. Bird is continually impressed with the energy and commitment that Clarkson students bring to their extracurricular activities. The Outing Club, the largest and most active student club on campus, doesn’t slow down for anything.

“It’s the week before Thanksgiving and everybody’s preparing for the last round of assignments before the break. It’s one of the busiest times of the semester,” says Bird, “and there are still three trips going out this weekend from the Outing Club: skiing, hiking and climbing.”

Bird’s experience with the Synergy club has been the same. Last September, he suggested that members — a mix of engineers, business and public-policy students interested in sustainable energy — scale back because they had too many activities.

“There’s just so much they want to do,” he says. “They want to take the kinds of ideas that they’re learning and reading about and actually put them into practice. And there’s a real attempt by Clarkson’s administration to help them do that wherever possible.” At Synergy’s suggestion, the university recently changed the default setting on all residence-hall washing machines to cold, a simple and effective way to cut energy consumption. Synergy members are also involved in biodiesel, green roof and rainwater harvesting projects on campus.

To learn more about Bird’s teaching and research interests, including the relationship between energy policy and social networks, visit his website.