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As Go the Tropics …

Sociology alumna Sandra Harding, president of Australia's James Cook University, chairs the "State of the Tropics" project. Photo: Cameron Laird.

Alumna Sandra Harding (Ph.D., Sociology ’94) asks a deceptively simple question: “Is life in the Tropics getting better?” But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of that question: her quest for the answer, and her leadership as an economic sociologist, stand to change the world.

Harding, vice chancellor and president of Australia’s James Cook University, chairs the State of the Tropics, a first-of-its-kind partnership with 12 research institutions around the globe.

It may well be that as go the Tropics, so goes the world. With 40% of the world’s population, and 80% of its biodiversity, the Tropics is a major geopolitical and environmental region that provides critical clues to the future of our planet, its peoples, and its biodiversity.

The State of the Tropics project “provides the first in-depth, objective assessment of the Tropics as an environmental and geopolitical entity in its own right,” according to its website. “Drawing on the knowledge, experience and diverse backgrounds of leading institutions across the Tropics, the report assesses the state of the region and examines the implications of the immense changes the region is experiencing.”

“The tropical population is expected to exceed that of the rest of the world in the late 2030s, confirming just how crucial the Tropics are to the world’s future,” Harding told Science magazine. “We must rethink the world’s priorities on aid, development, research and education.”

Harding returned to NC State recently to meet with faculty and graduate students in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “We are proud that Sandra has gone on from our doctoral program to do so well as a scholar and administrator,” says Bill Smith, head of the department. “Her work with the State of the Tropics organization exemplifies how academic knowledge can be corralled to take on some of the really difficult problems societies face.”

Harding was recognized in 2003 as NC State’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences Distinguished Alumna.