Toddi Steelman portrait

Toddi Steelman

As an expert on fighting wildfires and leader of Duke’s campus-wide investments in climate awareness and sustainability, Toddi Steelman hopes the Duke Climate Commitment catches on like, well, wildfire.

A 1996 Ph.D. from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Steelman is quite literally a coal miner’s daughter, having grown up in West Virginia and attending WVU as an undergraduate. Her bona fides also include being a wildland firefighter and driving an ice-road truck. Before returning to Duke in 2018 as Dean of the Nicholas School, she had been on the faculty at the University of Saskatchewan and NC State University.

Steelman is a national authority and frequent speaker at wildfire conferences. Her research had her racing to major wildfires to shadow the tactical leadership and observe how agencies and the public interacted and how communities prepared and responded to these disasters. “This gave me a front-row seat in a master class of leadership and management,” Steelman told Duke Magazine last year.

The increasing ferocity of wildfires is what drives Steelman’s passion about climate change.

“It became obvious that climate change was a major driver in more intense, severe and frequent events,” she says. “We saw the pressure on wildfire and emergency managers as well as communities who were struggling with how to adapt to these increasingly unpredictable conditions.”

As leader of the Office of Climate and Sustainability, Steelman is leading Duke’s efforts to shrink its carbon footprint and improve sustainability practices, as well as building a curriculum that will help all students become climate fluent, regardless of their major. Most importantly, she says, the university is going to use its convening power to bring together many sectors of society to actively address the climate challenge and work together toward solutions.