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  • American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program
  • Biological and Environmental Engineering
  • Computational Biology
Michael Charles ’16 (he/him/his), assistant professor, Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering

Academic focus:

Computational and community-based sustainable solutions.

Research summary:

Broadly, I explore how computational models can help communities achieve their envisioned futures. My research is centered on designing sustainable systems that encompass technological, ecological and social factors. As a Diné (Navajo) scholar, I am also committed to forming mutually respectful partnerships with Indigenous communities, guiding the applications of our lab’s work. Current projects investigate the vital role that ecosystems play in addressing climate change, managing health risks linked to air pollutants, advancing food sovereignty and addressing the housing crisis with Indigenous youth in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Outside of work, playing rugby accounts for most of my time. I have been fortunate to travel all over the world with the sport and its community, including organizing and playing with an Indigenous traveling team. I also love making music, playing trivia, sitting around a fire, and I always seem to have an ongoing community project.

Michael Charles is also a member of CALS' first-ever faculty cohort hired to explicitly address systemic challenges facing marginalized communities through transdisciplinary collaboration.

What are three adjectives people might use to describe you?

Personable, creative, passionate.

What (specifically) brought you to Cornell CALS?

I studied at Cornell for my undergraduate degree in the College of Engineering and was also a student with the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. While I was finishing up a postdoc at The Ohio State University, I was invited to apply to the CALS’ Science-Based Solutions to Grand Challenges in Equity and Inclusion cohort. Although I was unsure if my work still fit in academia, this cohort encouraged me that my transdisciplinary and community-based approaches had a home at Cornell.

What do you think is important for people to understand about your field?

I often remind others that “all models are wrong, some are useful.” This is why I focus on community integration and feedback to the computational models we develop in our lab – to make sure our work is useful. It is very important to remember that most of the community members we work with, particularly Indigenous communities, do not operate at the same pace or on the same schedule as academia often imposes. It is important to be willing to be patient, no matter how busy you may be.

Why did you feel inspired to pursue a career in this field?

I can point to many pivotal moments across my academic journey that led to making decisions down this path despite my uncertainty. My community is the most consistent theme. When I applied to graduate school for my Ph.D., I made the decision after an elder from my community told me that “I should because I can.” My vision for my career becomes clearer every day as I navigate how to pair my professorship with the needs of my community to contribute meaningful research in literature and implementation.

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