A few years ago, an anonymous donor gave $4 million to the University of Colorado to strengthen its environmental studies program, which is booming in popularity among students on the Boulder campus.

The gift has come to fruition this fall as the university hired Daniel Doak, a well-known biologist, to fill its first-ever endowed chair position.

Doak is a conservation biologist known for his analysis of how government policies can affect species including sea otters, corals, California condors and rare plants.

Next semester, Doak will be teaching two courses on the Boulder campus. One is a basic ecology course for environmental studies majors tailored for students who aren't planning to become biologists; it's designed to give them the scientific tools needed for careers in fields such as environmental planning or policymaking.

The second course -- an upper-level course geared for graduate students or advanced undergraduates -- will help students understand how to make predictions on the ways to estimate how threatened or endangered different species actually are and how to plan the most effective kind of management to reduce the risk of extinction.

The class will blend math and computer science methods with ecology, which is Doak's specialty.

Environmental studies has become one of the most popular undergraduate majors on the Boulder campus, with more than 1,000 undergraduate majors and 50 graduate students. In 2011, it ranked as the No. 5 undergraduate major.

Enrollment numbers for the environmental studies program have nearly doubled since 2008, said Sharon Collinge, CU professor and director of the environmental studies program.

She called Doak a perfect match for the endowed chair, a position that will help bring more visibility to the environmental studies program.

"He epitomizes what we're looking for," she said. "He really exemplifies the interdisciplinary approach that we welcome and embrace."

The National Academy of Sciences recently published Doak's study that found the California condor is chronically endangered by lead exposure from hunters' spent ammunition. The free-flying condor population has risen over the last 30 years because of captive breeding, monitoring and veterinary care, the study found. Meanwhile, the primary threat to the endangered bird -- lead poisoning from bullets and shotgun shells lodged in carrion -- has gone largely unmitigated, according to the findings.

Doak, she said, brings expertise in policy to his analyses of risks of energy development, for example. And he is widely cited for his research in quantitative conservation biology, which combines sophisticated computer modeling with varying policy scenarios to project changes in populations of rare species.

Since 2007, Doak has worked as a professor of zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming. Previously, he was a faculty member at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Doak also has had research ties to the Boulder area.

Since 2001, Doak has been working on a long-term project at the Mountain Research Station above Nederland, researching how well plants fare amid climate change. His research involves two types of plants: moss campion, a pink flowered plant; and alpine bistort, a slender herb with reddish-white flowers.

Like most typical species, they are able to live across a wide range of habitats, he said.

"The two species that are the focus of the work I do up there range from far northern Alaska all the way down to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico," he said. "We're trying to understand how climate change in one place influences them. How do they respond to climate change year-to-year and across this wide range of places that they live now, and when does climate change surpass their ability to basically cope?"

Doak, who grew up in Alaska, said he became interested in nature as a child. The Alaska pipeline -- built between 1974 and 1977 to address the oil crisis -- caused Anchorage to more than double in size, he recalls.

"I saw that even in a place called the last frontier, people could have an enormous impact," he said.

Many people are sincerely interested in pursuing work that they think will improve the world, Doak said. But back when he was in school, there was less recognition about how environmental problems can lead to other problems -- such as food and water scarcity.

He said he is impressed with the interdisciplinary work being done at CU and with students' increasing interest in environmental studies.

"A lot of really bright and motivated students are realizing there is this environmental component which is underlying or is going to supersede all of these other problems that you want to tackle in improving human welfare and improving welfare of other species," he said. "I think that was more opaque 30 years ago."

Doak's research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.