CAHNR departments and CESE team up on interdisciplinary approaches to environmental problems

As part of their work to carry out the College’s research mission, more than 35 CAHNR faculty enjoy an affiliation with UConn’s Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering. Several faculty members hold joint appointments as well.

“The Center’s mission is primarily to serve as a catalyst for multidisciplinary research throughout the University,” says Michael Willig, professor and director of CESE . “We have 170 university faculty members that are affiliated with the Center.”

Melissa McKinney in Greenland
Melissa McKinney in Greenland

“It is a university-wide center whose main mission is to foster and facilitate research activities in environmental science and natural resources,” says John Volin, professor and head of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE).

Volin continues, “Our department is very interdisciplinary in nature. It’s a really diverse group and the Center helps facilitate interactions with other departments within the College as well as other schools university wide. Mike does a great job bringing everyone together to work on projects that are outside our disciplines that we might not otherwise take on. It’s a terrific collaborative partnership.”

In 2011, UConn’s president called for new cluster hires of faculty based on areas of research. NRE and CAHNR’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE), CESE, and the School of Engineering UConn School of Engineering worked together to develop a climate and sustainable water resources cluster. This collaboration brought new faculty positions to the College. Ashley Helton and Melissa McKinney, both assistant professors in NRE, are two of the newest faculty members holding joint appointments in CESE. McKinney’s research focuses on bio-accumulative contaminants and climate change and their effect on aquatic species and the ecosystem, while Helton’s research centers on the effect of global climate change and human activities on water resources.

“My joint appointment allows my lab to be not only actively engaged in research and teaching through NRE, but also to have a physical lab at CESE and access to state-of-the-art CESE facilities and equipment,” says McKinney. “Although I have only recently joined UConn, my new PhD student, Sara Pedro, and I are already collaborating with CESE on a project examining the consequences of climate-induced changes in forage fish populations on contaminant and nutrient dynamics in arctic marine mammals.”

Helton says, “My joint appointment with CESE and CAHNR provides me and my students with interdisciplinary interactions and research opportunities far above what we would experience in a single department,” she says. “On a daily basis, we interact with researchers with an enormous range of interests and expertise.”

“One of the reasons the relationship with CAHNR works so well is because CAHNR and the CESE share common goals and perspectives,” says Willig. “Most people in the College and Center recognize that solutions to environmental problems are one of the biggest challenges that mankind faces in the twenty-first century, yet at the same time, human well being intimately depends upon the environmental and ecological services that nature provides in terms of food security, health and aesthetics. This facilitates discussion to ensure that the environment remains a high priority.”

As part of Helton’s research, Jason Sauer (M.S. student in NRE) and Eva Nelson (senior undergrad in Environmental Science) install field equipment to collect water samples in a Farmington River watershed stream.
As part of Helton’s research, Jason Sauer (M.S. student in NRE) and Eva Nelson (senior undergrad in Environmental Science) install field equipment to collect water samples in a Farmington River watershed stream.

One CESE project required students to write grant proposals to include two faculty members from two different disciplines. Over the course of five years, more than fifty faculty paired with students from various colleges and departments and were funded by CESE to engage in transdisciplinary environmental research.

“Our goal is to train the next generation of scientists and advance the future of science by bringing together research minds from various disciplines to tackle environmental problems from a broader perspective,” says Willig.

The Center houses advanced laboratories for analysis of nutrients, metals and organics in soil, water, air and biological tissues. Additionally, CESE offers the use of its vans to departments at no cost for students to participate in field trips and experiential learning activities. “Getting students out in nature makes a substantial difference in their education, and providing our vans reduces departmental expenses,” says Willig.

“Our partnership with the Center strengthens our department,” says Rigoberto Lopez, professor and head of ARE. “The partnership supports our mission and focus on the environment and natural resources. It also provides funding for faculty that enhances our pool of resources and creates synergies for our faculty to collaborate with other departments and colleges.”

“Our department provides economic analyses of the value of farming, forestry and environmental assets as well as private strategies and public policies to better utilize them,” Lopez explains. “In addition to marketable products, farms also provide valuable society assets that are not captured by the market but nonetheless affect the quality of life for residents. In a state such as Connecticut, for example, dairy farms provide milk to the market and other amenity benefits to society such as scenic vistas, open space and wildlife conservation. Studies show that residents are willing to pay to preserve these types of benefits.”

“There are benefits provided by farmers that they are not compensated for in the open market,” Lopez points out. “Farmers are the unpaid architects of the New England rural landscape.”

“Mike Willig has been very open to working with our department,” Lopez continues. “One of our faculty, professor Stephen Swallow, is co-funded by the CESE, which shows a high level of commitment on their part.”

Stephen Swallow, center, with PhD students Pengfei Liu, left, and Anwesha Chakrabarti. Photo by Cameron Faustman.
Stephen Swallow, center, with PhD students Pengfei Liu, left, and Anwesha Chakrabarti. Photo by Cameron Faustman.

Swallow is involved in research that measures the monetary value of preservation through the Bobolink Project, a program aimed at preserving bobolink nesting habitats that was recently featured here.

“This research is about finding better ways to integrate the benefits of the environment into the economy,” Swallow says. “Environmental valuation is about objectively measuring other peoples’ subjective values.”

Swallow is also working on a project funded by ARE’s Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy in which students purchase water quality credits for the Ohio River. Students will learn how projects producing credits also affect other environmental benefits, such as pollinator or wildlife habitat or carbon sequestration. Students will visit a New York City auction house and bid against power plants for these water quality credits in an exchange coordinated by the Electric Power Research Institute.

The project links to a USDA/NIFA- funded study on environmental credit stacking, which allows farmers and landowners to produce carbon, water quality or wetland credits on the same piece of land and sell all these credit types, rather than only choosing one type to sell from each project. These credits are sold at auction to developers or other companies that by regulation must purchase credits to offset environmental damages from their normal activities. For instance, a landowner might grow plants that store carbon and prevent runoff into bodies of water, earning carbon and water quality credits. As part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, power plants burning fossil fuels must purchase carbon credits as offsets to mitigate their own carbon output or to meet their corporate environmental sustainability goals.

“The synergistic relationship between CAHNR and CESE results in more research opportunities for students and faculty that would otherwise not be available and thus facilitates, and indeed fosters, the excellence and advancement in environmental research for the university as a whole,” says Volin.

By Kim Colavito Markesich