Alum’s bequest supports Wagner environmental studies

Alum’s bequest supports Wagner environmental studies

John Deane in his sculpture studio, September 2007

Earlier this year, Wagner College created a new major in environmental studies — which meshed perfectly with the support a Wagner alum gave to the college in a bequest a decade ago.

In retirement, Wagner College 1953 graduate and film studio accountant John Deane devoted himself to cultivating an organic garden, which led to his abiding interest in environmental causes.

John Deane was particularly committed to preserving and improving the environment in his home community of Staten Island. The devoted gardener and composting expert was one of those tapped to serve in the 1990s on the Solid Waste Advisory Board, which helped close the huge New York City landfill on Staten Island.

As the years went by, John Deane started thinking about how he could continue to support environmental causes and studies after his passing.

The answer he finally came up with was a bequest supporting students and faculty members at his alma mater, Wagner College, who were pursuing environmental studies.

A number of students and faculty projects have benefitted from John Deane’s generosity in the decade since his death.

The John Deane ’53 Scholarship is designed “to provide financial support to Wagner College students who pursue an undergraduate degree in a field or major related to the environmental sciences.”

Last year’s Deane Scholarship went to Regina Ismaili ’19 of Randall Manor, Staten Island, who graduated cum laude with a B.S. in chemistry and minors in biology and environmental studies.

Starting early in her career as a Wagner College student, Ismaili pursued environmental research under Wagner chemistry professor Mohammad Alauddin, internationally known for his study of arsenic contamination of village wells in his native Bangladesh. With Alauddin, Ismaili looked at groundwater contamination in Bangladesh from another toxic element: fluoride.

“Our recent study involving analysis of about 100 groundwater samples … revealed that 20 percent of samples have fluoride levels much higher than the World Health Organization guideline value,” Ismaili wrote in her presentation to the Eastern Colleges Science Conference in the spring of her sophomore year.

With Ismaili’s graduation this spring, representatives from the college’s Admissions and Financial Aid offices will meet this summer to choose a new recipient for the John Deane ’53 Scholarship.

An additional boost to Wagner College students interested in environmental studies is the John ’53 and Gloria Deane Award, a $500 prize given each year since 2015 “to a deserving student who demonstrates the strongest level of academic excellence in and desire to pursue work in the field of environmental sciences.”

Last year’s Deane Award went to Jessica Trieste ’19 of Todt Hill, Staten Island, an anthropology major and environmental studies minor. Trieste had distinguished herself through off-campus research on wildlife conservation at the Prospect Park Zoo and the New York Aquarium. This year, her senior capstone project was based on research she conducted with capybaras, a South American mammal that resembles a giant long-legged guinea pig, at the Staten Island Zoo.

The 2019 Deane Award was given this May to a departing senior, Mary Gad of New Dorp Beach, Staten Island, who graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in environmental science. Gad collaborated with Alauddin and biology professor Elizabeth Suter on a project to identify heavy metal contamination at an urban oyster reef in New York City’s Bush Terminal Park, a public recreational space created out of a former Brooklyn waterfront port facility.

A third benefit from John Deane’s bequest is the Deane Endowed Fund “to support teaching and learning in the environmental sciences.”

Part of the Deane Fund’s purpose is to help the college acquire the necessary equipment for teaching environmental science, especially important with the newly adopted major in environmental studies.

The major beneficiaries of the Deane Endowed Fund have been faculty research projects “in areas directly related to the environment.”

Last year, Elizabeth Suter was given support for a project she has been conducting with Andy Juhl of Columbia University. Together with Wagner College graduate student Ahmed Hazazi, they examined the presence of two kinds of microorganisms in the Hudson River: disease-causing pathogens, and non-pathogenic microbes that spread antibiotic resistance.

“Due to the overuse of antibiotics, microbes are rapidly evolving resistance mechanisms, and this is one of the biggest health threats to our society,” Suter said. “Any microorganism can be resistant to antibiotics, not just pathogens, and they can spread that resistance.”

A couple of years ago, Wagner College environmental history professor Brett Palfreyman used a Deane Fund grant for an interesting, interdisciplinary project.

“Oysters were a major local food source until about 100 years ago, when pollution and overharvesting had destroyed them,” said Wagner Magazine. “Today, the Billion Oyster Project is bringing the bivalves back to places like Lemon Creek in southern Staten Island.”

Floating cages strategically placed by Palfreyman, his students and other volunteers mimic the conditions of a reef and allow workers to monitor how the creatures are faring. They were able to determine that, yes, oysters can grow and thrive along the shores of Staten Island off the harbors of New York City, as they did abundantly in times past.

Palfreyman’s grant, like most such allotments from the Deane Fund, was modest — but invaluable.

“The real costs are in building the infrastructure to farm oyster larvae, which Billion Oyster Project had already done,” Palfreyman explained. “Most of our budget went toward building our rigs — which, outside of the specialized floating oyster cages, were made of cinder blocks, rope and garden hose … low tech, and low cost.”

To see more of what Palfreyman and his students accomplished with their Deane Fund grant, visit a Web display created by the professor in his capacity as a curator for the Museum of the City of New York, “Onward, Oyster! A Democratic Delicacy,” which includes a short, information-packed video.