Alumnus Mike Melo ’79 has crafted a career defined by the Virginia Tech motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) and built a company based on the “In the Arena” philosophy espoused by Theodore Roosevelt for making the world a better place.

Through their ongoing engagement and a recent $500,000 gift to the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Melo and his wife and business partner, Kathy Gravely Melo, are working to ensure that Virginia Tech will be ready to take on what may be the next great challenge in the sustainable management of natural resources: environmental security.

Environmental security is the proactive management of environmental and natural resources risks to ensure a secure, stable, and sustainable human ecosystem. According to Melo, it is “the intersection of natural security challenges and specific threats that impact the environment.”

Because the natural resources that surround us — water, forests, wildlife, fisheries, and the untold ecological and environmental benefits we all value — do not recognize the national borders that we create, conflicts occur in relation to access and usage. Global environmental challenges, such as natural disasters, climate change, pollution, food and water security, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, create another layer of complexity.

Melo, who received a bachelor’s in forestry and wildlife from Virginia Tech in 1979, offers a unique perspective on this emerging field. His father gave him the text of Roosevelt’s “In the Arena” speech when he was 12 years old, and the president’s words have shaped his approach — first to life and then to business — ever since.

Developing interest in environmental security creates new opportunities

Following graduation, Melo served in the U.S. Navy and then started a company — ITA International, named in admiration of Roosevelt’s speech and philosophy — which provides analysis planning, curriculum development, and training for U.S. Department of Defense customers.

As the inaugural chair of the Dean’s Advisory Council for the college, Melo speaks openly of how he has “been impressed by the leadership of Dean Winistorfer as he keeps leading the college forward with innovative ideas to address challenges in natural resources.”

The Melos’ gift is helping bring one of these ideas to fruition by providing discretionary resources to aid Virginia Tech and the college in pursuing a school of environmental security in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area. Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), views this as a natural evolution of the college’s successful graduate program housed in the region’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.

According to Winistorfer, “Our broad interest in environmental security arose from many months of conversation about wide-ranging environmental challenges, issues of global security and stability, and concerns about sustainability. Together, these topics intersect to form a complex, challenging context for current and future problem solving.”

Melo notes that this type of complex and interdisciplinary approach is the standard way of doing business at Virginia Tech. He cites the university’s transdisciplinary communities of Data and Decisions, Economical and Sustainable Materials, and Global Systems Science as examples of how people, processes, and tools are being leveraged to tackle major research issues.

“With the research that CNRE is doing in sustainability, remote sensing, weather, water, forestry, geography, big data, and many other pertinent areas, it is the perfect college to address the issues of environmental security,” Melo stated. He points to the water: resources, policy, and management degree in particular as a great example of the interdisciplinary approach that is needed and how the college has been able to execute.

A donation by the Melos has already been used to convene an Environmental Security Forum held in Arlington, Virginia, in April 2019. For two days, representatives of government and industry, as well as Virginia Tech academic leaders and faculty, met to kick off a conversation about utilizing data for evidence-based decision making in relation to environmental issues.

A man holding a microphone stands in front of a lectern. Several people sit at tables in front of him.
Mike Melo addresses attendees at the Environmental Security Forum in Arlington, Virginia, in April 2019.

Next steps for the Melos and the college

Melo hopes that the ideas generated and the connections made at the forum will be the beginnings of a research agenda for the creation of the school. While a proposal is being prepared by the college to create the school, the Melos are forming additional companies under the ITA International umbrella in the realm of data and environmental security.

“From remote sensors to geospatial applications to drones, a wide variety of technology is being used and creating a significant amount of data,” Melo said. “Now that we have the data, we need to use it to address national security issues.

“Certainly, the coronavirus has emerged as a national and global security issue,” he added. “The college has expertise in this arena, from infectious diseases to medical geography to spatial patterns of disease and disaster events.”

Winistorfer echoed these same ideas and indicated that environmental security has not traditionally been an area of study for natural resources programs. However, researchers, educators, and industry professionals are now realizing how fundamental resources are to security issues.

“As we become more globally connected and resources become more valuable, security issues will surely become more obvious,” Winistorfer said. “Our faculty do work that is data intensive, and they are modeling, predicting, and working to solve big problems by operationalizing data for decision making. The Melos’ gift will allow the college and campus to focus on an area that may lead to recognition in the national context.”

The Environmental Security Forum and the recent gift to pursue a school of environmental security are just the first steps in moving this agenda forward. Mike and Kathy Melo are also interested in further engagement with Virginia Tech and the college through internships and career opportunities through their company. ITA International is based on Yorktown, Virginia, but provides integrated support services, such as data analysis, planning, training, and logistics to the U.S. military and other organizations worldwide.

“ITA International can help translate the research into real-world business solutions to solve these challenging issues,” Melo said. “Eventually, we will be able to offer internships and employment to those in the field.”

Ultimately, this effort will allow the college and Virginia Tech to get in on what Melo describes as the ground floor in terms of defining the field of environmental security and preparing the leaders who will operate in this arena.

Winistorfer also envisions the future benefits of the Melos’ vision and generosity: “What humbles me the most is the Melos’ willingness to share their resources with us, to provide them at our discretion, and to work with us on a grand vision that, if successful, will be a major programmatic initiative for Virginia Tech that begins in the Washington, D.C., area but reaches around the globe.

“If successful, we will continue to elevate our college and university interests in environmental and natural resources stewardship, and, ultimately, security, stability, and sustainability, whereby we are solving problems, educating students, and linking these efforts in a meaningful way with the world,” he added.

These beliefs also ring true with Melo, who continues to take his inspiration from Theodore Roosevelt. While many know Roosevelt as the 26th president of the United States, he was also an avid outdoorsman who created a legacy of conservation and sustainability that endures today.

Roosevelt spoke eloquently of those who tackle the big problems instead of sitting idly by. They may at times come up short, but at least they are trying. He called this approach being “in the arena,” and it is exactly where Mike Melo says he wants his company and the College of Natural Resources and Environment to be.