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. 


Burned Out Art Installation, $262.14

Project manager: Lya Yang  |  Project advisor: Wendy Wischer

Lya Yang created an interactive sculpture installation to talk about energy use and indirectly bring awareness to carbon dioxide emissions created by power plants that generate electricity by burning fossil fuels. The piece consisted of black structures to evoke factory plants and handles placed at varying points, which viewers could engage with. Four different people cranking all four handles caused a portion of the sculpture to light up. The lights served as both a warning about non-renewable consumption of electricity and a beacon of hope in the search for a solution that can only be achieved if the collective works together.

Cowspiracy Screening, Panel, and Information Fair, $210

Project manager: Jayla Lundstrom  |  Project advisor: Howard Lehman

Eating sustainably can be one of the most effective ways for individuals to reduce their environmental impact. The screening of the 2014 documentary “Cowspiracy” about the footprint of animal agriculture, facilitated thoughtful reflection and discussion and ignited student action and involvement. The screening was followed by a panel discussion with professors and community members who have expertise in sustainability fields. An information fair after the event offered students and community members the ability to connect with sustainable campus organizations and local groups. Attendees gained an understanding of how their actions impact the environment and how they can make a difference.

Solar Car Cooler, $754.09

Project manager: Beau Healey  |  Project advisor: Meredith Metzger

When parked vehicles heat up in hot weather, energy is wasted to run air conditioning to cool them to comfortable levels. Therefore, students developed a 3-D printed, solar powered, forced convection cooling system for cars. Testing was conducted to evaluate the amount of reduction in carbon emissions as well as consumer fuel savings. This device circulates ambient air throughout the vehicle, while forcing the hot air out. The final Solar Car Cooler prototype is able to lower the inside vehicle temperature to the ambient temperature outside the vehicle, successfully maintaining the inside vehicle temperature at a safe temperature.

Winterizing the Wildlife Society at the U, $540

Project manager: Amy Sibul

Caretakers of the beekeeping and kestrel nest boxes utilize a golf cart purchased through SCIF in the past, and it has proven to be incredibly useful. It allows for the transportation of ladders, equipment, hive materials, and more. In winter weather, maintenance of the cart is necessary. Funding for this project purchased a protective cover for the cart, as well as rugged tires that are better able to handle trail access needs. The cart is now better suited for winter weather so that it can continue to support beekeeping and kestrel nest box efforts.

Cradle-to-Cradle Coffee Maker, $2,613.77

Project manager: Marie Vandervliet  |  Project advisor: Roseanne Warren

Cradle-to-Cradle is a design philosophy emphasizing life-cycle sustainability of a product. This project created a coffee maker that could operate solely from the user’s input, rather than electricity. The user operates the coffee maker by riding a bicycle, which spins a circular plate of magnets beneath a copper water tube. The spinning magnets create a magnetic field that generates a current through the copper tube, creating heat. This project represents a successful example of how a human could reasonably spin magnets to brew coffee, without the need for a battery or other electrical source.

Food Recovery Network Operations Coordinator, $4,953.05

Project manager: Julia Maciunas  |  Project advisor: Shannon Jones

The United States wastes nearly 30-40% of all food produced. In an effort to combat that, the Food Recovery Network (FRN) reduces food waste from one of the most prominent and sizeable waste streams on campus and diverts potential edible food waste to feed food insecure students and other community members. The establishment of a paid FRN Operations Coordinator, funded by SCIF, helps to create a viable organizational model for the FRN and guarantees a functional transition plan for student leadership turnover. Ultimately, the position helps to engage students on a campus-wide level to realize the impacts of the university’s food system.

The Dying Spirit: Intermedia Sculpture, $4,287.07

Project manager: Darby DeHart  |  Project advisor: Wendy Wischer

“The Dying Spirit” is a sculptural piece created to increase awareness about the erosion of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The sculpture depicts Ab Jenkins, 24th Salt Lake City Mayor and Bonneville race car driver, positioned mid-run. His left hand is stretched out in front of him, but the salt on his body is disintegrating to reveal the soil underneath. The piece was temporarily displayed on the Salt Flats as well as in the Marriott Library during peak weeks.

(In)visible Interactive Art Piece, $300

Project managers: Ciria Alvarez, Maria Olsen, Uyen Hoang  |  Project advisor: Wendy Wischer

This project brought awareness to Red Butte Creek, which runs primarily underground throughout Salt Lake and the University of Utah. The art piece consisted of a river made out of wood and painted with chalkboard paint at Library Plaza. The art piece posed questions about the creek, the importance of water, and environmental justice that students could discuss by writing on the river. The project brought attention to the water sources we use and often take for granted, thereby making the “invisible” visible. It also brought out the voice of the surrounding community to potentially aid the preservation of the creek.

(In)visible Outreach Mailing, $206.70

Project managers: LeAnne Hodges, Morgan Crowley, Derek Rennicke  |  Project advisor: Wendy Wischer

This smaller piece of the bigger (In)visible project to raise awareness about Red Butte Creek involved sending letters to students to share personal stories about the creek. Even though the creek runs through campus, little awareness about it exists on campus. By appealing to students emotionally through the letters, students raised awareness for the creek and encouraged people at the University of Utah to be more conscious of how they may harm the watershed. After receiving one of these letters, which includes a map and photo of the creek, students could write their own letters and pass it on to others.

(In)visible Plaza Food, $470

Project manager: Katie Barber  |  Project advisor: Wendy Wischer

This project consisted of an event on Library Plaza with themed food and discussion to raise awareness about Red Butte Creek and other lesser-known watersheds. The event encouraged students to actively participate in learning about Red Butte Creek’s importance, and the correlation between the food and the watershed emphasized the immediacy of the Red Butte Creek’s impact on the students themselves. Discussion centered around the growing need to acknowledge the systems through which Red Butte Creek is affected by campus activity.

(In)visible T-Shirt, $200

Project manager: Emma Wardle  |  Project advisor: Wendy Wischer

This aspect of the (In)visible project consisted of a walk through campus to raise awareness about Red Butte Creek in which blue t-shirts were given out. When perceived as a group, the students walking together in blue t-shirts gave the impression of a river moving through campus, as Red Butte Creek does. The t-shirts also drew attention to the project, created incentive for students to join, and allowed the project to have a lasting impact by extending the conversation beyond the campus walk.

Air Quality Ambassadors, $735

Project manager: Kimberly Kernan  |  Project advisor: Brenda Bowen

The Air Quality Ambassadors aimed to bring air quality science to K-8 students in demographic populations not typically targeted by other organizations. The ambassadors designed lesson modules that expanded upon the work currently being done by AIRU and BreatheUtah to broaden the scope of education already occurring. Through the modules, they created a hands-on science experience related to Salt Lake Valley’s air pollution and relating it to weather and geography. They also introduced students to the health effects from air pollution and discussed the multiple ways to improve air quality including personal choices and involvement with state and local regulators.

Composting Improvements, $668

Project managers: Amber Henshaw and Myrna Groomer  |  Project advisor: Kathleen Nicoll

The Edible Campus Gardens currently partner with University Dining Services to compost food waste. This group’s 8-bin wire compost system located within the University of Utah’s Pioneer Garden was experiencing numerous operational problems. Therefore, with SCIF funding, students purchased two “Compost Twin” tumblers. Through this project, students were able to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions and campus landfill waste loads, increase compost operation efficiency, increase soil health profiles and soil reserves for holistic planting within the garden, and increase student opportunities for sustainable community building, volunteering, leadership, and education around the University of Utah’s compost integration.

Earth Week Film Screening, $481

Project manager: Jonathon Kuntz  |  Project advisor: Tasha Myers

For University of Utah’s annual Earth Week, students hosted a screening of the film “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change”. The film examines the interwoven forces that create climate change and the people globally working against them. Earth Week educates faculty, staff, students, and the public about different ways the university is working toward a more sustainable future. It is important to educate people about Earth Week’s mission so they may change even a small part of their lives to aid environmental efforts.

Park Water Bottle Filling Stations, $1,068

Project manager: Jack Hattaway

The south approach to the Park Building is a high-traffic zone for student pedestrians headed to and from classes on Presidents Circle, campus shuttles, and mass transit. Given the building’s convenient location, a bottle filling station is an excellent student resource. This project purchased and installed water bottle retrofit kits for the basement floor water fountains in the Park building. These water bottle filling stations help to eliminate the dependence on external vendors such as Mount Olympus. They also reduce the need for single-use water bottles and provide a convenient place for students to fill their reusable bottles.

People’s Climate March Performance and Flyers, $420

Project manager: Colin Green  |  Project advisor: Stephen Goldsmith

The Utah People’s Climate March was an event that stood with the worldwide march on April 29, 2017. Two important groups of voices for climate change are youth and native people, so this project set out to get both involved in the Climate March. This grant provided funding for marketing materials that were spread around campus, as well as for a native drum group to perform during the march. Funding for these aspects of the rally demonstrate the university’s understanding of the role that native people and youth play in solving the climate crisis.

Project Youth, $352.15

Project manager: Rena Adair  |  Project advisor: Bryce Williams

Project Youth is an annual event where fifth- and sixth-grade students from Salt Lake County are invited to the university to experience a taste of college life. This year over 1,000 students participated, as well as over 200 university volunteers. Students received a SCIF grant to purchase tumblers and pie tins for the event. These supplies allowed organizers to feed all of the students and volunteers lunch while eliminating a lot of waste. It was a wonderful day made better by students’ ability to help the environment as well.

Reusable Bags at the Feed U Pantry, $1,091.13

Project manager: Nick Knight  |  Project advisor: Shannon Jones

Feed U allows any University of Utah student, staff, or faculty member facing food insecurity to receive free food when they visit the Feed U Pantry. During each visit, plastic bags are provided to clients to collect and carry their food items. Providing these disposable plastic bags to clients causes budgetary strains on the Feed U program, causes an unnecessary waste of materials, as well as uses plastic bags that are not environmentally sustainable. SCIF funded screen-printed reusable bags that would decrease overall program costs, give clients a more sustainable option for carrying pantry food items, and reduce stigma.

Solar Ice Maker, $616

Project manager: Brandon Hammid  |  Project advisor: Kent Udell

Through this project, students designed and developed a solar-powered refrigeration unit that creates ice inside of a cooler. The use of solar and battery power makes the product independent of an electrical grid, and the electrical generation and storage generates no harmful carbon emissions. By assuming 75 hours of annual use by 100,000 units, 680,000 lbs CO2, 900 lbs NOx, and 450 lbs SO2 emissions are eliminated that would be generated during grid powered ice production. Furthermore, the ability to grow ice, and have reliable, grid independent food storage can extend shelf-life of perishable goods, vaccines, and more.

An educational sign on a tree in President's Circle at the University of Utah.

Tree Campus USA Promotions, $225

Project managers: Brianna Milot and Emma Bellan  |  Project advisor: Troy Bennett

Tree Campus, a national designation, recognizes the University of Utah’s dedication to its tree population and to ensuring a sustainable future. The trees on our campus are alive in part simply because people have cared to support them. In an effort to get more students involved in the Tree Campus Organization, this project hired a student to create promotional flyers that were distributed on campus and social media. Promoting Tree Campus will ensure that trees will always be an important part of the University of Utah. 

ADA Accessibility for Pioneer Gardens, $5,527

Project managers: Brianna Milot and Matthew Briggs  |  Project advisor: Jennifer Watt and James Ruff

This project secured ADA access for the Pioneer Garden, which is part of the Edible Campus Gardens, by adding an ADA compliant pathway east to west through the garden. The pathway included a wider semicircle area in the middle for a good turn-around point and extended the sidewalk on the west. This pathway allows access to the central part of the garden, where there will be seven ADA accessible gardening beds. This accessible pathway helps with the inclusion of people with disabilities into specific courses, academic programs, the campus community, and the physical location of the garden itself.

AEB Natural Playground, $10,000

Project managers: Kate Kausch and Rachel Carrillo

Staff in the ASUU Child Care Program created a sustainable outdoor classroom. They added a a flagstone path and retaining wall to their outdoor space, giving children a variety of surfaces to explore, and plant beds to include living plants specifically chosen to engage all of the senses. As a result of this project, children can engage in an all-natural playground and learn sustainability practices that they can take with them throughout their lives. Additionally, the parents are becoming involved in the maintenance of the playground and students can learn best practices for the field of early childhood education.

Centennial Valley Solar, $5,500

Project manager: Matt Angioli  |  Project advisor: Jennifer Watt

In this project, seven solar panels were installed at the Taft-Nicholson Environmental Humanities Center. The addition of solar panels to the center is a great update in energy solutions to protect against power outages and to lessen the impact of the center and the university on the environment. This project also sets a high precedent in green energy use as a research facility for other university satellite facilities and to visiting students alike.

Compost Heat Capture, $3,710

Project manager: Sean Lund  |  Project advisor: Marc Calaf

Students built a compost heat capturer to be used at the Edible Campus Gardens. Compost is a resource that generates thermal energy while providing nutrients and microbial activity to soils. This project helps to solve the thermal energy loss and complexity of use involved in composting. Additionally, this project improves local sustainability by processing organic waste created by U students. At the Mechanical Engineering Design Day, over 100 students visited this project. Additionally, a local community garden was ecstatic about the project and asked students to build another one for their other farm.

Mathematics Bike Racks, $10,779

Project manager: Della Rae Riker

The University of Utah Climate Action Plan and Bicycle Master Plan support an increase in the number of people commuting to campus by bicycle. The increased use of bicycles requires an increase in bike parking. In this project, bike racks were installed on the east end of LeRoy E. Cowles Building on Presidents Circle. Using the campus standard of the Varsity Rack by Ground Control Systems, enough racks were added to store 26 bikes. The Varsity Racks provide stability for the bikes to remain upright. This almost doubled the existing capacity in that area of Presidents Circle.

FASB Dyson airblades, $4,740

Project manager: Lily Wetterlin  |  Project advisor: Brenda Bowen

The Fredrick Sutton Building (FASB) is home to the Department of Geology and Geophysics. In this project, students replaced six of the current enMotion paper towel dispensers in the bathrooms of FASB with six Dyson Airblade V hand dryers. This project not only saves money for FASB and reduces carbon emissions and paper waste, it serves as a stepping stone for buildings all over campus to take initiative in switching to more sustainable products and inspiring future purchases to revolve around sustainability.

Sprouting words, $6,500

Project manager: Sierra Govett  |  Project advisor: Jennifer Weber

Ananya Dance Theatre is the leading creator of contemporary Indian American Dance in the global arts and social justice movement. In “Shyamali, Sprouting Words,” the company draws from the work of women of color, including acclaimed scientist and environmental justice activist Vandana Shiva, to explore how dissent creates resilient and sustainable communities.

In this project, students organized week-long interdisciplinary student intensive, a high school workshop, and a public audience empowerment workshop offered by Ananya Dance Theatre in conjunction with their performance. This project intersected sustainability, social justice, and dance-making to foster a resilient campus community.

ASCE Conference Sustainability, $1,500

Project manager: Jenny Calderon  |  Project advisor: Christine Pomeroy

The American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) 2017 Rocky Mountain Regional Student Conference took place April 6-8, 2017. Students incorporating sustainability measures throughout the conference. A service project was arranged at Red Butte Gardens. All printed materials were on recycled paper and name badges were placed in compostable name badge holders. A design competition took place in which students had to create a structure while considering material conservation. Recycling bins were placed at all events, resulting in about twenty 50-gallon bags of recyclable waste. The keynote speaker discussed sustainability extensively, and sustainability was included in conference logos.

EEJMRB water bottle filling stations, $1,500

Project manager: Amanda Mixon  |  Project advisor: Paul Sigala

With SCIF funding and matching funds provided by the departments of Biochemistry and Pathology, students installed water bottle filling stations on each of the five floors of the Emma Eccles Jones Medical Research Building at the School of Medicine. This project supports refillable water bottle use by the 200 students, postdocs, faculty, and staff who work in this building and thus substantially reduce disposable plastic consumption.

Sustainable Tech for DBB, $35,535

Project manager: Julia Warner  |  Project advisor: José Galarza

DesignBuildBLUFF is a 501(c)(3) administered out of the University of Utah that exists to promote applied research in contemporary rural architecture, cultural survival, and appropriate sustainable technology. With SCIF funding, students first installed Solar Photovoltaic Panel System for Cedar Hall, a multiuse space in Bluff. Next, they obtained a Compressed Earth Block Press to create compressed earth blocks, which create a sustainable, affordable, and durable building system. Students hosted a series of workshops to educate about the press. Lastly, students installed a Dense-Pack Fiber Cellulose Hopper, which creates an insulation material composed of 75-85% recycled paper fiber.

Social Equity in Transit, $8,560

Project manager: Torrey Lyons  |  Project advisor: Reid Ewing

Students used a combination of statistical and GIS analysis tools to evaluate regions with respect to social equity provisions by transit. A systematic evaluation was used to create a transit equity index (TEI). Regions’ TEI were then compared to determine how the Utah Transit Authority and our region compare to others throughout the country. This project produced a comprehensive report. It included a literature review, detailed methods, analysis, and results sections with specific conclusions discussing the project’s insight to campus and regional transit management. A research article was also submitted to a leading transportation planning journal.