Seed grants grow collaboration.

By Liz Ivkovich, Global Change & Sustainability Center, originally published on April 9, 2018.

Water uptake in plants, the neurocognitive underpinnings of certain personality traits and food as a cultural process. How are these starkly different areas connected?

Each topic relates to environmental change. And each topic is the thrust of a new interdisciplinary research collaboration. These projects and six others have received funding through the Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC) and the Society, Water, & Climate Research Group’s (SWC) new seed grant initiative.

“The GCSC is thrilled that we were able to partner with SWC to support interdisciplinary faculty seed grants to help catalyze new collaborations between U faculty from different disciplines as they pursue sustainability research,” said Brenda Bowen, director of the center. “These grants were specifically targeted to help bring new faculty into existing interdisciplinary projects and to facilitate new research that will lead to future external funding opportunities.”

In total, $132,000 in grant funds has been awarded to nine different collaborations.

Funded projects include research being pursued by faculty from anthropology, atmospheric sciences, biology, cognition and neural science, environmental and sustainability studies, environmental humanities, family and consumer studies, geography, geology and geophysics, law, neuroradiology, pediatrics, psychology and sociology.

Here are three examples of funded research:

  • For the project, “Leveraging the Wasatch Environmental Observatory to Improve Prediction of Western U.S. Forest Carbon and Water Cycling,” investigators will gather data about how plants take in water and use it to build better models for predicting how Intermountain forests will change in the future.Utah’s mountain forests provide highly valuable ecosystem goods and services to local communities, including timber, tourism and recreation, water purification, and carbon sequestration. These forests fundamentally affect carbon and water cycling, thus influencing water resources upon which Utah’s communities and economy rely. Climate change is projected to increase stress on mountain forests through more frequent and severe droughts, more and larger wildfires and other disturbances like insect outbreaks. The complicated scale of these changes requires new kinds of models that can predict the future of U.S. forests.One fundamental data gap currently limits researchers’ ability to develop rigorous models for ecosystems in the Wasatch Mountains. Data required to model drought stress in mountainous forests, such as the plant traits that comprise water transport via xylem, are not yet available. Through this funding, the team will be able to begin collecting these data.Researchers on this project include William Anderegg, biology; Paul Brooks, geology and geophysics; John Lin, atmospheric sciences; and David Bowling, biology.

 

  • In a project entitled “Individual Differences in Environmental Attitudes and Behavior: Examination of Personality, Neurocognitive Mechanisms, and Malleability,” faculty investigators will explore the neurocognitive underpinnings of the personality trait “openness to experience.” Openness to Experience — the breadth, depth and permeability of consciousness, and the recurrent need to enlarge and engage experience — is the personality factor most consistently associated with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Behaviors associated with this trait include reducing emissions to address climate change, belief in human behavior-driven climate change and a sense of connection to humanity and nature.There has been scant research examining the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying pro-environmental attitudes and behavior. Understanding this personality trait may inform how programs and policies can be tailored to create social change in environmental attitudes and behavior. The team will also examine the extent to which environmental attitudes and behaviors can be changed through exposure to nature/aesthetic experiences.Faculty investigators on this project are Paula Williams, psychology; Jeff Anderson, neuroradiology; Jeanine Stefanucci, cognition and neural science; Yana Suchy, neuropsychology; David Strayer, cognition and neural science.

 

  • The project, “Exploring Indigenous Lifestyles for Justice, Sustainability, and Health: Native Food Knowledge and Practice,” will explore the livelihoods of Great-Basin Shoshone tribal members and evaluate whether participation in traditional diets and land management and use of native language are correlated with positive health outcomes. With the loss of indigenous languages comes the loss of traditional cultural practices. This project is unique in that while much traditional knowledge has disappeared with the loss of language, the traditional knowledge of the Shoshone community partners exists in untranslated ethnographic data in the University of Utah’s possession. While many health interventions in local indigenous communities are based in Westernized approaches to health, including a focus on exercise and nutrient consumption, this research team, including tribal partners, share the perspective that food and health are cultural processes and products. They are committed to working toward increased food sovereignty — the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.Researchers on this project include Adrienne Cachelin, environmental and sustainability studies; Brian Codding, anthropology; Lillian Tom-Orme, epidemiology; and Marianna Di Paolo, anthropology

“These kinds of interdisciplinary research endeavors are crucial to addressing today’s urgent social and environmental challenges,” said Andrea Brunelle, chair of the Society, Water, & Climate Research Group executive committee. “The diverse range of projects supported by the seed grants is a testament to the importance of multiple perspectives on climate, society and water. The work doesn’t stop with these grants. Through other ongoing collaborations between GCSC and SWC, as well as with partners such as Red Butte Garden, we will continue to support this relevant research.”

The seed grants were awarded through a competitive interdisciplinary peer-review process that considered impact of the research in terms of new publications and future external grant funding. Funding for some projects was supplemented with financial support from Red Butte Garden specifically aimed at supporting student and postdoctoral research linked to plants.

Melding Perspectives, Finding Solutions

In Utah, the second driest state in the country, water is a critical issue. Our water systems are interconnected with human systems, and as our population expands and the climate changes, protecting and sharing this resource equitably will require collaboration between researchers, practitioners and decision makers.

When it comes to collaborative water research, the U’s Society, Water, and Climate Research Group (SWC) is leading the way. With the addition of five new faculty members, the group has undertaken an ambitious mandate – to meld multiple scientific perspectives toward finding sustainable water solutions for a changing world.

Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and incoming president, addresses faculty at the forum.

Many U faculty already had significant expertise related to water, society and climate, but there were areas that could be strengthened. A group of U researchers, led by the chair of the U’s Geography Department Andrea Brunelle, formed the SWC in 2013.

The team’s first task was to articulate gaps in the society, water and climate perspectives already at the U. Then they proposed new faculty positions to fill those gaps through the university’s Transformative Excellence Program. The Transformative Excellence Program is an ongoing hiring initiative seeking new faculty focused around interdisciplinary themes rather than discipline.

“If we are to truly address Utah’s – and the nation’s – societal issues, we must think beyond our traditional approaches,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Watkins, who is also the incoming present of the U. “The Transformative Excellence Program was designed to identify areas within the university where focusing on strategic additions to our faculty could enhance our preeminence and allow us to better serve the citizens of this state and country.”

Ten departments – Anthropology, Atmospheric Sciences, Biology, Economics, Environmental & Sustainability Studies, Geography, Geology & Geophysics, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology – invested in this unique hiring process, an unprecedented level of interdepartmental collaboration.

“This hiring process was very inspiring and rewarding,” said Brunelle. “Working with a group of faculty who obviously care so much about these topics and this research that they would invest an absolutely tremendous amount of time working on these searches even without a guarantee of a departmental hire was incredible. Even after the hires were completed, all the departments are represented on the SWC executive committee, showing continued investment in this collaborative endeavor.”

As the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, this kind of cluster-hiring can be a fraught endeavor. It is challenging to ensure the process doesn’t unravel in the context of disciplinary hiring needs.

At the U, the SWC hiring process fit in with the university’s ethos of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Several years earlier, in 2011, the U underwent a similar hiring process for a small group of faculty who would work at the fringes of their discipline on climate- and environmental change-related research. This initial search ultimately brought Diane Pataki (Biology), Gabe Bowen (Geology & Geophysics) and John Lin (Atmospheric Sciences) to the U. This first group hire, which laid the groundwork for the Transformative Excellence Program, happened through the dedicated efforts of faculty in the Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC), which was led at the time by director emeritus Jim Ehleringer.

Audience members at the forum gather for panel presentation from (L to R) Amy Wildermuth, chief sustainability officer; Steve Burian, director of the U Water Center; Andrea Brunelle, co-chair of the Society, Water, & Climate Research Group; and Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center.

The GCSC is a web of 140 faculty members in 10 colleges who all work within environmental and sustainability themes. The center facilitates faculty connections and interdisciplinary grants, offers graduate fellowships and research funds and manages a sustainability-related graduate certificate. In addition, the GCSC also has a series of ongoing and one-time events aimed at bringing the interdisciplinary community together in meaningful ways. All of these endeavors work to catalyze relevant research on global change and sustainability at the U.

“The investment the administration put into the GCSC really set a tone for the value that collaborative work has on this campus and that translated beautifully to the SWC project,” Brunelle said. “A great example of this is the generous contributions of time, resources and support that my Dean, Cindy Berg, provided throughout the multi-year hiring process.”

To build the SWC research group, broad descriptions of new faculty positions were posted online. The response was immediate and overwhelming. In the first year of the search, 13 candidates were brought to campus, offering fascinating talks about climate change and impacts on water and society.

After several years of intensive searches and interviews, the group is now complete with five new faculty in four departments. These five faculty bring nationally renowned research to the university while seamlessly integrating into their departmental homes.

“The Society, Water and Climate initiative has really helped to integrate GCSC scholars from across campus around a common set of questions and problems that require scholars to come together in new ways,” said Brenda Bowen, director of the GCSC. “The SWC focus has helped us to recognize and identify common research interests between seemingly separate fields and is creating opportunities for faculty and students to advance their work in new directions. The incoming SWC faculty are interdisciplinary leaders and are already catalyzing and supporting projects and grant proposals that move all of us forward as we work towards a future where humans and ecosystems thrive.”

Meet SWC hires. These members will join existing faculty who are part of the group.

William Anderegg, Biology, 2016

William Anderegg is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah. His lab studies how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling and biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks. This research spans a broad array of spatial scales, from cells to ecosystems, and seeks to gain a better mechanistic understanding of how climate change will affect forests and societies around the world.

Juliet Carlisle, Political Science, arriving in 2018                                                                         

Juliet Carlisle is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science. Her research substantively deals with political behavior and public opinion with an emphasis on environmental politics and policy. In particular, Carlisle has investigated issues surrounding environmental concern, including what people know about the environment, where that knowledge originates and how that knowledge influences their opinions and behaviors. Her co-authored book, “The Politics of Energy Crises” (2017), applies policy theories to energy crises and explores energy policy during energy crises with specific attention on the role of public opinion, business interests and environmental activists.

Gannet Hallar, Atmospheric Sciences, 2016

Gannet Hallar is an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Utah and the director of Storm Peak Laboratory in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, operated by the Desert Research Institute. Her research focuses on using high-quality measurements of trace gases, aerosol physical and chemical properties and cloud microphysics to understand connections between the biosphere, atmosphere and climate, along with the impact of anthropogenic emissions on these connections.

Summer Rupper, Geography, 2015

Summer Rupper is an associate professor in the Geography Department at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on glaciers and ice sheets as recorders and indicators of climate change and as freshwater resources. Recent and ongoing projects include quantifying glacier contributions to water resources and sea-level rise, assessing glacier sensitivity to climate change and reconstructing past climate using ice core snow accumulation data and geomorphic evidence of past glacier extents. These projects are all part of a larger effort to characterize climate variability and change and the impacts of these on society.

S. McKenzie Skiles, Geography, 2017

McKenzie Skiles is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Utah. She is an alpine and snow hydrologist whose research interests center on snow energy balance, remote sensing of mountain snow and ice and cryosphere-climate interaction. Her research methods combine numerical modeling, laboratory analysis, and field, in situ, and remotely sensed observations to better constrain the timing and magnitude of mountain snowmelt and to improve our understanding of how accelerated mountain snowmelt is impacting this critical natural reservoir over time.

The SWC is one of 10 Transformative Excellence cluster hiring initiatives currently in place at the U. Current projects include families and health research; society, water and climate; statistical science and big data; digital humanities; biophysics; sustaining biodiversity; health economics and health policy; resilient spaces (aging); science and math education; and neuroscience.

Banner image: Members of the SWC chat at the November 2017 Water Forum, the inaugural event for the Society, Water & Climate Research Group, organized by the SWC, the Global Change & Sustainability Center, and U Water Center.