ECO-MAN (continued)

Not only that, but the university also applied for the dorm to be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council under its Leadership, Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) program. Certification is given at the basic, silver, gold, and platinum levels. (There are just two buildings in the United States that have earned platinum certification.) "We think we're going to make LEED gold," Coull says happily.

When Coull started his academic career in the late '60s, he had no idea that he would end up an environmental activist. He studied biology at Moravian College and marine biology at Lehigh University, which at the time had a field station in Bermuda. He then received a postdoctoral fellowship from Duke University to study at its marine laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina.

His particular area of expertise is copepods, microscopic crustaceans that occupy one of the lowest rungs on the food chain. He's discovered and classified 50 new species of copepods, written more than 125 scientific articles about them, and edited four textbooks on marine ecology. After a couple of years teaching at Clark University in Massachusetts, he was hired by the University of South Carolina as a professor in its Marine Sciences Department.

"It was a chance to work in one of the last pristine, unpolluted marine estuaries on the East Coast," he says, "an opportunity to study how a natural ecosystem works-and how we have altered it in places like the Jersey shore and Baltimore Harbor." He spent 23 years in marine sciences (12 as department chair), setting up studies of the biological index and calendar of the state's miles and miles of shoreline; and he imagined he'd spend his life sloshing through these coastal waterways, examining squiggly little creatures in the lab, writing articles in scientific journals, and supervising Ph.D. students. In 1981, he was a senior Fulbright fellow at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand; and in 1994, he was a visiting professor in marine sciences at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

But the life and times of copepods led him in a direction he never expected. As he learned how marine ecosystems work, he became aware that they were but a condensed version of the ecosystem in general. The crustaceans he studied acted "like earthworms in the soil. They aerate the sediment and turn over the nutrients every 30 days." In the warm climate of South Carolina, turnover can occur as often as every 12 days.

For two reasons, he explains, these creatures are "early sentinels of pollution." Because they process nutrients quickly as they aerate river- and estuary beds, the pollutants they ingest are just as quickly-and digestibly-passed along to fish and shellfish that eat them, thence to land animals and humans. The other is that their life cycle is accomplished in about three weeks, so it's easy to see that "pollution changes their genetics." Coull calls this process "unnatural selection." PCBs and mercury are mutagens, and as they chemically alter the DNA of these myriad crustaceans, "it reduces the genetic diversity and stresses the ecosystem."

"I was a science geek," he says, "but my area was pretty narrow. In retrospect, even knowing how marine ecosystems work is fairly narrow. Eventually, I learned that [my field] wasn't about little bugs that live in sediment. That was only part of it.

"I knew what I was doing in salt marshes and estuaries. But I finally realized that there was so much more to it: social aspects of the environment, environmental economics, environmental ethics. It was a steep learning curve, to realize how all this interacts."

In 1996, when he had thoughts of retirement from life as a marine biologist, President Sorensen asked him to be dean of the newly established School of the Environment. Coull agreed to lead the school for a year. He's still there. (Though he does plan to retire in perhaps three years.) Not only did he turn out to be an inventive thinker, but he also had a knack for matching donors and projects.

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Whether on a dorm rooftop among solar collectors, at left, or in his office as dean of USC's School of the Environment, above, Bruce Coull is at home in any environment.

Photo: Michael F. Brown