Currie Barron and Tom Barron ’74 establish research fund to preserve biodiversity

Princeton has established an endowed fund with a gift from Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron that will significantly increase support for environmental research related to biodiversity and build upon the University’s decades-long leadership in studying and protecting the rich variety of Earth’s ecosystems. The Thomas A. and Currie C. Barron Family Biodiversity Research Challenge Fund will support individual or teams of Princeton faculty from across the campus who pursue research crucial to preserving species and the interconnectivity of ecosystems.

The Biodiversity Challenge program will be based in and overseen by the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) — previously known as the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) — as part of its Grand Challenges program. Established in 2007, Grand Challenges is an integrated research and teaching program that has provided millions of dollars in support for faculty research that addresses urgent and complex global environmental issues from multiple dimensions.

The new biodiversity fund brings the number of active Grand Challenges programs to four, including the Climate and Energy Grand Challenge, the Water and the Environment Grand Challenge, and the Urban Grand Challenge. These programs fund faculty-led research — with an educational component — that addresses urgent and complex global environmental issues related to climate and energy, oceans and freshwater systems, and sustainable cities.

Currie and Tom Barron, pictured at their home in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Currie and Tom Barron)

“There is no greater long-term challenge to humanity than the environmental crisis, and Princeton’s mission of service compels us to find solutions to mitigate the impact on our ecosystems,” said President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83. “Currie and Tom Barron care deeply about preserving our planet’s biodiversity. They have been dedicated and creative champions for environmental research at Princeton for several decades, supporting our approach to finding workable global solutions through interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists, policy makers, industry and storytellers. We are deeply grateful to the Barrons for their vision and their commitment.”

The preservation of biodiversity is one of the most urgent environmental problems today, with human activity driving an accelerated loss of plant and animal species worldwide, often referred to as the sixth mass extinction. Many of the tools and theories scientists use in the lab and field today — from mathematical models and gene sequencing, to climate models and satellites — have their roots at Princeton.

Today, the University’s scientists — many of whom are appointed in or affiliated with HMEI — continue to lead the way in studying the dynamics of species and natural systems in ways that are relevant to sustainability and conservation.

“When you lose biodiversity, when you pluck out strands of the complicated web of life surrounding us, that can require 100 million years of evolutionary time to repair,” said Tom Barron, a member of the Class of 1974. “Every species has the right to live. On top of that, when we harm other species, we also often harm ourselves. Think for a moment about what our lives would be like if we had no pollinators. That would devastate our fruits, our trees, and our global supplies of food… as well as our spirits. So the declines in honey bees and monarch butterflies, which are terrible losses by themselves, are also great losses to humanity.”

Barron (left) speaks with Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber at the 2019 gala celebration celebrating HMEI’s 25th anniversary. Barron was the keynote speaker for the event, which coincided with the two-day Princeton Environmental Forum. (Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

A former University trustee, Tom Barron was influential in the founding of PEI and continues, to this day, to serve as a member of HMEI’s advisory board. Tom and Currie have contributed to the flourishing of HMEI’s Environmental Humanities Program, which encourages and supports the participation of Princeton faculty, research scholars and students from the humanities and the social sciences in the study of environmental issues.

Central to the program’s scope have been the Barrons’ establishment of a full professorship in the Humanities and the Environment, currently appointed in HMEI and the department of English, as well as the Barron Visiting Professorship, which brings accomplished and emerging humanists working on  environmental topics to Princeton for stays lasting up to one year. The Barrons also established a freshman seminar in environmental writing. A profile of Barron is available on the Giving to Princeton site.

HMEI serves as the center for environmental research, teaching and outreach at Princeton, bringing together more than 120 faculty from 30 academic disciplines to work on topics including climate science and climate modeling, carbon mitigation, biodiversity and biocomplexity, water security and environmental justice, among other environmental topics.

“Princeton’s Environmental Institute was founded in 1994 to provide an intellectual and organizational hub for innovative thinkers from across the University to pursue and collaborate on practical, forward-thinking solutions to the environmental issues facing society,” said Michael Celia, director of HMEI, the Theodora Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “During the past 25 years, the Institute has brought that vision to bear not only through prolific and impactful research but also through our steadfast commitment to educating the next generation of leaders.

“From our founding, Currie and Tom Barron have not only been passionate supporters of our environmental initiatives — they’ve been outstanding partners,” Celia added. “Their support of Princeton’s work related to biodiversity illustrates their deep understanding of how crucial the complexity of natural systems is to global ecosystems and to human society. It also signifies their acknowledgement that the work carried out at Princeton and through HMEI is  —  and will continue to be  —  essential to understanding that complexity, how we all depend on it, and what we can do to protect it. We are extremely grateful to the Barrons for their generous gift and their ongoing belief in our mission.”

Among Barron’s many contributions to HMEI is the T. A. Barron Environmental Leadership Prize presented each year to a graduating senior in honor of exceptional dedication to environmental concerns in their academic work, as well as through campus and community activities. Barron is pictured with 2017 recipient Shannon Osaka, an independent major focusing on environmental science and environmental studies. (Photo by Morgan Kelly, High Meadows Environmental Institute)

Barron is known to his readers as T. A. Barron, an award-winning and internationally bestselling author of novels and children’s books, including the fantasy adventure series “The Merlin Saga,” currently being developed into a movie by the Disney studio. As an undergraduate at Princeton, Barron won the M. Taylor Pyne Prize and went on to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He earned M.B.A. and law degrees from Harvard University, and embarked on a successful career at a private equity investment firm in New York City, serving as president and chief operating officer of his publicly traded company.

In 1990, Barron left that career to move his family to Colorado and become a full-time writer. Since then he’s authored 31 books, and in 2011, he was awarded the de Grummond Medallion for “lifetime contribution to the field of children’s and young adult literature.”

For the past 40 years, Barron has been a leading voice for The Wilderness Society, which is dedicated to the protection of natural habitats and federal public lands, and he also has been active with organizations such as Earthjustice, World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society.

“President Eisgruber has raised the bar for Princeton to draw on the strengths of many interdisciplinary fields to help us answer these very big questions,” Barron said. “We need to reach people in ways that go beyond the science. The atmosphere, the oceans, the forests: All of those are going to be saved only if we understand that the Earth itself is a great story, a story that includes us. We need to tell that story in a much more compelling and inspiring way.”