Systems scientist Allyson Beall King named director of WSU’s School of the Environment

Allyson Beall King
Allyson Beall King, new director of the School of the Environment, pictured near Missouri Flat Creek in Pullman. A researcher and teacher of dynamic systems, Beall King introduces students to ecosystems along the creek. She plans to enhance the school’s partnerships with the broader state community.

Allyson Beall King, a researcher and teacher exploring the dynamic systems that drive the natural world, is the new director of WSU’s School of the Environment (SOE).

An associate professor and former SOE associate director for undergraduate programs, Beall King replaces biogeochemist Kent Keller in the four-year appointment. Beginning her new role on Aug. 16, 2022, she plans on broadening the school’s mission to understand regional ecologies and our changing planet.

“We investigate the environment through the lens of both science and people’s needs,” Beall King said.

SOE encompasses geology, earth and space science, wildlife conservation, forest management, and a host of other disciplines. It is a unique, dual-college enterprise between the WSU College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS). That collaboration, Beall King said, is crucial to finding answers to existing challenges such as species loss and climate change, as well as new problems we don’t know exist yet.

“We’re part of a living planet,” she said. “Its evolution affects our lives and our decisions.”

Take wildfire, for example. Scientists in SOE study the role and the impacts, positive and negative, of this frequent disruptor of western forests and communities.

“For decades, we thought we needed to suppress wildfires,” Beall King said. “Now we know that humans have been using fire beneficially on this continent for thousands of years. We need to be able to look to the past to make better decisions for the future.”

Insights into the dynamics of nature

Beall King is a triple WSU alumna: she earned a Washington State bachelor’s degree in general biology in 2003, followed by a master’s in environmental science a year later. A doctorate in environmental and natural resource sciences followed in 2007.

“I’ve always been interested in science,” Beall King said. “My father was a geologist for Shell Oil, and we moved constantly: the longest I lived anywhere as a kid was two years. We camped all the time, and on those trips my dad would tell me about science, how the world worked.”

Higher education is her second career. In what was meant to be a temporary job after her first stint in college in the late 1970s, Beall King ran a successful business as a trainer of show-jumping horses. Deep down, though, she always knew she was a scientist, and returned to WSU in the early 2000s: “I needed a different kind of mental stimulation.”

Beall King found her calling in the field of systems dynamics.

“It opened up an entire new world for me,” she said. “Systems dynamics looks at the connections between things, and how feedback between parts of a system have the potential to change its behavior over time.”

Used in a range of fields, including economics, health care policy, and natural resource management, systems dynamics lets environmental scientists like Beall King model the interplay of human, physical, and biological influences on the environment. She works with biologists and managers to understand and solve challenges facing the environment and natural resources.

“Together, we discover some interesting insights about how systems work,” she said.

Reaching out to a wider world

Beall King has researched and taught at WSU for the past 14 years. Recently, she led an introductory seminar for first-year students, helping them understand the school and its opportunities.

“I see them years later in my classes as juniors and seniors,” she said. “It’s so great to watch them grow as scholars. Mentoring and teaching students has been wildly rewarding. I love it.”

“Dr. Beall King truly understands the School of the Environment, its mission, and its people,” said Wendy Powers, Cashup Davis Family Endowed Dean of CAHNRS. “She is an experienced leader and a passionate scholar of systems dynamics. The school itself is a system that links researchers and students in two colleges with communities and environments across the West. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Todd Butler and I are excited to see how Dr. Beall King grows and enhances those connections.”

As SOE director, Beall King sees opportunities for faculty advancement as well as roles for new and associate faculty to round out the school’s mission. A new Native American Food Systems faculty member in CAHNRS, for example, will bridge discoveries in wildlife conservation and forest ecology with food and community health.

“I want to start looking outward,” said Beall King, who envisions new partnerships with agencies and communities beyond the university.

“We study ideas of real interest to the public, such as fire, forests, and climate, and we can help make change on the ground. That’s definitely part of our land-grant mission.”