Alumnus shapes learning, influences policy at Yale

When Eli Fenichel started his graduate studies at Michigan State University, he was certain he didn’t want to be an academic. Fast forward 13 years, and he’s an assistant professor at Yale University.

December 5, 2016

By Marie Orttenburger

When Eli Fenichel started his graduate studies at Michigan State University, he was certain he didn’t want to be an academic.


Fast forward 13 years, and he’s an assistant professor at Yale University, enjoying both the research and teaching parts of the job.


Fenichel’s studies were guided by his passion for the environment. In the years after receiving his bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology with a minor in environmental and natural resource economics, he worked in national parks as a Peace Corps volunteer and later with national parks and conservation groups.


But he grew dissatisfied with the direction he was headed.


“Understanding the ecology better wasn’t going to help me solve problems,” Fenichel said. “These were mostly economic problems.”


So he returned to school to get a master’s degree in agricultural economics and later a doctorate in fisheries and wildlife with a specialization in resource and environmental economics.


“I realized that what I wanted to be doing was more on a strategic level than on a tactical level,” he said.


Watching his professors in the Fisheries and Wildlife and AFRE departments shape policy showed him what he could do as an academic.


So when Fenichel graduated with his Ph. D., he gave academia a try.


“It seems to be working,” he said.


Fenichel became an assistant professor of ecological and bioeconomics at Arizona State University in 2008. Four years later, he joined Yale’s faculty as an assistant professor of bioeconomics and ecosystem management. He’s relished the opportunities to do research and shape policy.


His work focuses on the economics of conservation.


Far too often, Fenichel said, people talk about conservation in terms of how much it will cost. He argues that it should be viewed more as an investment.


“We have this beautiful environment, it provides us with a flow of benefit, which really supplements our income in a very real sense,” Fenichel said. “If we protect it, it can continue to provide benefits in the future.


“Nobody ever says, ‘What’s the cost of putting money into my retirement account?’” he added.


The challenge comes in assigning monetary values to natural resources, and that’s where Fenichel is focusing his work now. He’s excited about creating the tools to set capital asset prices for natural resources that are appropriate for national accounts.


One project is a software package that accountants can use to calculate natural capital asset prices.


“I’ve had national accountants say to me, for the first time, this looks like somebody coming up with natural capital asset values that we can actually use in an apples-to-apples way in national accounts. That to me is really exciting.”


This kind of progress through research is what drew Fenichel to academia. Teaching, on the other hand, was not always a goal. But a distaste for half measures has made him a successful teacher as well. While at Arizona State University, he was nominated for the Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Teaching Award in 2011.


Fenichel approaches teaching as though he is a coach and his classes are workouts.


“It’s about pushing people to learn and putting them into positions where they’re able to learn,” he said.


His strategy is to blend helping students to develop critical thinking skills with learning subject matter knowledge, and also to equip them with relevant job skills that they’ll be able to apply postgraduation.


“I think that style of teaching is something that I picked up from people like Rick Horan and Frank Lupi and Jim Bence, some of the people who mentored me at Michigan State,” he said.

“My goal is never to teach somebody what they need to know today but to put them in a position where they can figure out how to solve a problem five years from now.”

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