New Directions for Environmental Justice

By Nicholas Apodaca, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

Many of us who care about climate change and environmental justice take action in our daily lives to do our part: we recycle, use sustainable products, use public transportation or eat locally grown food. Yet often environmental problems play out at a larger scale, and while our personal actions can help in small ways, it is important to understand the forces at work in creating environmental hazards and injustice from the start. If we know where injustice begins, we can begin to make a change for the better.

Professor David Pellow of the University of California, Santa Barbara, is exploring new directions in environmental justice in his research. On April 16 from 4 – 5 p.m. in ASB 210, join him for his lecture, “Toward a Critical Environmental Justice: Exploring State Violence & the Settler Colonial Conflicts.”

Pellow began his research in Sociology and Environmental Justice in the 1990s when he completed his Ph.D. dissertation in Sociology,  “Black workers in green industries: the hidden infrastructure of environmental racism,” at Northwestern University. He has since taught at Colorado, UC San Diego, and Minnesota, before arriving at UC Santa Barbara in 2015. There he is the Dehlsen Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Environmental Justice Project.

In his lecture, Pellow will explore new directions in the theoretical side of environmental sociology.  He breaks it down into multiple approaches. First, he is attempting to further build on existing research that focuses on the intersection between environmental hazards and class, income, race, gender, citizenship and nationality. He sees these intersections as critical for developing nuanced solutions to the complex interactions that produce injustice. “[I am] trying to ask bigger questions about the role of government or the nation-state in producing and exacerbating environmental problems and environmental justice issues in the first place,” Pellow explains. The contradiction is one of “relying on some of the same institutions that are arguably creating the problem in the first place.”

Pellow is also concerned with questions of scale in environmental justice research. He sees environmental justice as an issue that affects us  individually as well as globally. “Environmental hazards regarding academic and policy analysis must be approached as multi-scalar,” argues Pellow. “What happens at the micro scale is almost always revealed to be linked the community or national scale.” As no environmental issues exist in a vacuum, local and regional issues are just as “global” in consequence as environmental injustice outside of the United States. Often, we can find problems in our own neighborhood. Pellow’s recent research on oil refineries located in residential areas of Richmond, California illustrates this well, showing how global economic dynamics can lead to visible environmental impacts on real people.

Lastly, Pellow will explore the ethics of environmental injustice research.”The kind of environmental research I’m doing seeks to question the expendability of ecosystems, of habitats, and of marginalized human populations,” Pellow says. Pellow believes that environmental sociology shouldn’t simply seek to expose injustice, but should fight these notions of expendability. “It’s really about declaring, loudly, the indispensability (of marginalized people). It’s about saying every voice counts. Otherwise, it’s not a democracy.”

Should you too believe that every voice counts in the fight against environmental injustice, and have an interest in the cutting edge of environmental sociology research, come to ASB 210 on April 16 at 4 PM for David Pellow’s GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Toward a Critical Environmental Justice: Exploring State Violence & the Settler Colonial Conflicts.”

PROTECTING OUR WINTERS

Originally posted on @theU on Monday, January 7, 2018.

By Abby Ghent, sports and sustainability student ambassador, Athletics and the Sustainability Office

Mind-blowing fact: According to The Washington Post, if you were born after February 1985, you haven’t experienced a month where the Earth’s average monthly temperature was below average. Rising temperatures, as well as a bunch of other compounding factors, are impacting our snowfall and our snowpack.

Join us on campus Jan. 9 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. outside the Union to learn more about more ways to cut down on your carbon footprint and possibly win free lift tickets.

As someone within that demographic, who’s an ex-professional and avid skier with friends who are still pros, this fact is frightening. I understand the severity of climate change in relation to professional skiers’ jobs—their livelihood depends on that snowpack. Many of us are concerned there won’t be enough snow to hold downhill ski races in the not-so-far-away future.

I eagerly await each fall and wish to delay each spring. However, these ideas, “I want to keep skiing! I don’t want it to be summer yet!” are selfish. Wanting there to be enough snowpack to thoroughly support our water needs, however, is not. I don’t think we emphasize just how much we rely on the snow in our mountains for non-recreational usage.

Snowmelt is important for many things such as providing for personal water use, dampening (no pun intended) the chance of wildfires, supporting ecological systems and many industrial uses. In the Western U.S., 80 percent of the water runoff from snowpack in the mountains is used for agriculture, according to researchers.

The lack of snow in our mountains creates a significant positive feedback loop. A warming climate leads to less snow, which leads to less water in the ground, which leads to more fires, which leads to more loose dirt or fine particles that are lifted by stronger winds (due to more high/low pressure systems because of our warming climate), which are carried further into the mountains landing on what little snow we have, creating a lower albedo, which in turn melts the snow faster and on it goes. Just one long run-on sentence.

The bus from Snowbird to Alta.

So, what can we do about it? There are many things that can be done but I want to focus on one thing: transportation. Here in Utah, we can see how much nastiness gets trapped in the air, and much of that comes from our cars, buses and trucks. In 2010, the amount of CO2 produced by on-road transportation (this doesn’t even include off-road vehicles and equipment) was the second largest contributor after commercial/industrial buildings (U.S. Department of Energy, 2010).

“But I have to drive to work! But I need to get to the ski area somehow!” Yes, all valid reasons to use some sort of transportation, but do we all need to take our own personal vehicles separately to many of the same places? I think we can do better. Public transit is an option, both around town and to the ski resorts. We know that taking the bus to ski areas can be more difficult than it sounds depending on your starting point, so don’t worry, there are other options. Carpooling can be convenient—ride to the ski areas or park-and-ride lots together and save on parking, gas, emissions and time.

We want you to pledge to look for carpooling and public transportation options first to get to your final destination this winter and forever.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Abby Ghent is a former U.S. Ski Team and University of Utah Ski Team member. She grew up in the mountains of Colorado, calling Vail her home mountain. She moved to Utah three years ago to race for the U and is currently studying environmental and sustainability studies, international studies and music.

Modeling Evapotranspiration and the Limits of Plant Life: Gaby Katul for the GCSC Seminar Series

By Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant

Plants play an essential role in the cycling of water and carbon dioxide through the soil and atmosphere. Across eons, they have evolved to optimize processes that maximize their resource uptake and energy usage. Determining the basic mechanisms of this process is complex, as plants are susceptible to subtle changes in their environment. However, in a time of increased threat from climate change—including dire consequences for plant life—understanding the fundamentals of plants’ processes has the potential to revolutionize how we study plants relationship with ecosystems, water, and carbon.

Gaby Katul, the Theodore S. Coile Professor of Hydrology and Micrometeorology at the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Duke University, will explore plant hydrology in his upcoming GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Evapotranspiration: From kinetic theory to the limits of plant life.”

In his research, Katul seeks a comprehensive model of how water moves through plants. This is not a simple task. Scientists have pieced together an understanding of the processes of drawing water from the soil and carbon from the atmosphere—processes that are bound up in complex and dynamic environmental, biological, and physical conditions. Katul hopes to identify what universal traits exist in the transpiration cycles of plants.

“Our thinking was to try and come up with the most general descriptions of these processes irrespective of the biomes,” Katul says. “The idea is to try to connect certain anatomical and physiological features of the plant to the environment. We want to study in the most generic way how environmental changes impact the responses of plants to drought, or elevated carbon dioxide, or elevated temperature.” Understanding the universal components of transpiration in plants can enable a radically holistic model for future research, regardless of biome, he says.

According to Katul, similar models are already used for understanding these processes in other fields. “For example, look at soil,” Katul explains. “There is sand, there is silt or clay, there are a billion combinations of them. But the objective is that if you know something about, say, the pore-size distribution, or the particle-size distribution, can you come up with general transport laws that describe water movement in porous media? We’re trying to do something similar for plants.”

Katul’s research is necessarily interdisciplinary. The physics of transpiration and carbon uptake are equally important factors. Katul has also drawn on economics, “particularly optimization principles where there are no conservation laws. The idea is to grab some techniques that have worked in different disciplines and try to bring them into this issue of plant-water relations.”

Ultimately, Katul thinks this work could lead to a universal model of plant response to environmental change that can inform future plant research. “We know a lot about water transport, carbon flow, energy flow in the plant. We also know that plants have evolved certain strategies, certain coordination among components to try to deal with certain bottlenecks that will pop up,” he says. “So, if we take this information and put it in a mathematical framework, can we interrogate this mathematical framework, and see what’s going to happen to these processes as climatic conditions evolve?”

A universal model will allow scientists to investigate the effects of changing climate on plants worldwide. By seeking a general model for optimization processes in plants, Katul envisions science where, as he puts it, “I am getting the answer right because I know the process that is being impacted by environmental change.”

To learn more, come to the lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 4 p.m. in Room 210 of the Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology building.

GOOD TO GROW

Originally published in Continuum on September 17, 2018.

Jessica Kemper, coordinator of the U’s Edible Campus Gardens, shows off produce from this season’s abundant harvest at their garden east of Pioneer Memorial Theatre. Kemper helps organize more than 75 student volunteers, who work shifts year round composting, trellising, weeding, planting, and harvesting at both the Pioneer Garden and their plot by the Sill Center. Come fall, there is enough produce to donate to the Feed U Pantry, share with volunteers, and sell at the U’s Farmers Market, which takes place Thursdays just west of the Union Building from mid-August to early October.

THE WASATCH FRONT: A LIVING LAB

Originally posted on @theU on September 17, 2018

By Paul Gabrielsen, science writer, University of Utah Communications

University of Utah scientists know how to turn a challenge into an opportunity. Repeatedly, researchers at the U have developed innovative research solutions to some of the Salt Lake Valley’s most serious environmental issues. Light rail trains sample the air as they dart around the valley. Camera traps keep their eyes on the wildlife in mountain canyons. Climate and hydrological observations track rain, snow, plant stress, groundwater and streamflow from the mountain crest to the valley floor.

All of these environmental factors—earth, air, water and life—are interconnected, though. A change in one has the potential to impact any or all of the others. So how do U researchers respond to this extraordinary complexity? By banding together. This fall, the U launches a new university-wide collaboration called the Wasatch Environmental Observatory.

“We’ve talked about campus as a living lab, and faculty have gotten grants to develop research infrastructure throughout the Wasatch Front,” says Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC). “We have all this infrastructure and we thought: ‘How can we pull this together in a new way to not just study campus as a living lab, but our home, the whole Wasatch Front?’”

This observatory isn’t a single facility like, say, an astronomical observatory. It’s a network of sensors and instruments, stretched all across the Wasatch Front, that collectively monitor multiple environmental metrics. “We’re pulling together all of the systems that were initially funded by individual researchers or large multi-researcher grants to make it into something more than the sum of its parts,” Bowen says.

Part of the observatory is relatively stationary, providing consistent, long-term data. But part is portable and deployable, Bowen says. “As events occur, we can deploy infrastructure into a certain area by pulling together hydrologic, atmospheric and ecological research facilities into a distributed observatory or field station.”

Paul Brooks, professor of geology and geophysics, says that the observatory is a framework for future projects and infrastructure to be added in. State, federal and local agencies, he says, have already expressed interest in tying their instrumentation into the WEO network. The measurements and results from WEO can then be used by those stakeholder agencies. “That’s one of the exciting areas of WEO,” Brooks says. “It takes the new knowledge generated by students and faculty and ports it through as quickly as possible to people on the ground who use that knowledge to make better decisions.”

For Bowen and the GCSC, which brings together faculty from across campus to study environmental issues, WEO is a fulfillment of the center’s mission. “It’s realizing what GCSC strives to be,” Bowen says. “WEO will help integrate everything we’re doing to advance sustainability in our own backyard.” 

WEO will be led by a committee of six faculty members (including Bowen and Brooks) hailing from the departments of Geology & Geophysics, Atmospheric Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the School of Biological Sciences. Beyond that, nearly 40 researchers from 13 different departments and eight colleges already have research or outreach projects associated with WEO.

According to a project summary from GCSC, current facilities to be linked together through WEO include:

  • Distributed hydroclimate, meteorological, biological and hydrological observations in seven catchments spanning the Wasatch Crest through the Great Salt Lake including six closely spaced stations spanning an elevation gradient from the top of Red Butte Creek down through campus and on to the Jordan River
  • Experimental stormwater, landscape, transportation, and architectural design infrastructure on campus
  • Long-term ecological, geological, and snow study sites
  • Seven atmospheric trace gas and climate stations from Hidden Peak (Snowbird) to the Salt Lake Valley floor
  • Light rail-based atmospheric observations distributed across land use and elevational gradients in the Salt Lake Valley (TRAX)
  • Deployable and relocatable high-precision atmospheric and hydrologic observation equipment
  • Co-Located, long-term, and spatially extensive databases from multiple disciplines

All of that equipment requires service, repair and maintenance. So WEO provides for two full-time research technical specialists, Dave Eiriksson and Ryan Bares, to keep the sensors running.

Brooks says the interconnectedness of the WEO sensor systems allows researchers to study the impacts on one environmental system, say, urban development, on others, such as the quality of water in urban streams.

“The idea is that each individual solution we have exists in a broader context,” Brooks says. “We want to be as comprehensive as possible so that the solution to one issue doesn’t then create a new problem down the line that perhaps we didn’t think of.”

Brooks adds that the U is uniquely positioned, with researchers and facilities, to study environmental issues common throughout the West.

“WEO brings those researchers and resources together,” he says, “so instead of addressing these issues piecemeal we have the ability to address them in concert.”

Want to join in?

If you’re considering or conducting environmental research along the Wasatch Front, come to a think tank mixer presented by GCSC on Sept. 26, from 5-7 p.m. at the College of Law, sixth floor, Flynn Faculty Workshop.

Learn more and register here.

 

5 GREEN FEATURES

Originally posted on @theU on September 10, 2018

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University of Utah Communications

The newly opened Gardner Commons building, which replaced Orson Spencer Hall, was designed with sustainability at its core. Here are five of its green features:

Looking out towards a carbon-neutral future

Gardner Commons is designed to be 100 percent electric-based. As the U installs and purchases more renewable energy like solar and geothermal, the building will eventually become carbon neutral, with no need for any fossil fuels. This design allows the U to move closer to its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

 

 

Looking down to the earth for power

The building is heated and cooled by the first and only geothermal ground-source heat pump on campus. The pump uses the ground as a battery, putting heat into the ground during the summer and taking heat out of the ground during the winter. This is estimated to save more than $70,000 a year in energy costs!

 

 

 

Looking inside for a holistic eating experience

Carolyn’s Kitchen, inside the commons, stocks reusable dishes, silverware and even reusable to-go containers. When it comes to food, this location features a plant-based station that satisfies vegan and vegetarian diets, a rotating station that hosts local vendors including Saffron Valley and local roaster Hugo Coffee, which uses fair trade beans. All this and more makes Carolyn’s Kitchen a holistic eating experience.

 

 

Looking all around for unique, beautiful and ethically sourced building materials

Those funky little dots on the windows? These ‘frits’ act as blinds while still allowing daylight, reducing solar heat gain to the inside of the building and glare from the sun. The horizontal panels on the outside of the building are glass fiber reinforced concrete, made locally. (Other buildings in Salt Lake City with these kinds of panels had them shipped from as far as Germany.) Marble from OSH’s restrooms was repurposed in Gardner to build front entry desks for all departments.

 

 

Don’t forget the Water Conservation Garden

Sandwiched between Gardner Commons and the Eccles School of Business, the Water Conservation Garden will be a beautiful oasis in the middle of campus. Formerly covered with water-consuming grass, the garden will bring water that would be piped through the city’s stormwater drain system to the surface, filter it, use it for irrigation, and send what’s left into the groundwater. The impetus for the garden was an $80,000 grant written by a team of U students and funded by the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund. The students also helped bring Red Butte Garden’s staff and expertise to this campus project. Look for the garden in spring 2019.

WATERSHED PROTECTION

Originally posted in @theU on August 27th, 2018

By Cecily Sakrison, U Water Center

Some come to the Natural History Museum of Utah for the world-class dinosaur exhibit, others are drawn to the vast collection of gems and minerals. But if you’re interested in sustainable engineering and infrastructure, you’ve arrived at your destination the moment you park your car.

 

It could be argued that the museum’s newest exhibit is its “50-year parking lot”—an engineering feat that’s “almost unheard of in Utah,” said David B. Alter, vice president of Ensign Engineering and project manager for the lot upgrade. With the pressures of ice, snow, salt and plows it’s rare that any parking lot in the Beehive state lasts anywhere near the half-century mark. But, this is no ordinary parking lot.

Michael Martin, NHMU Facilities Manager shows the 80mm depth of the pavers which are designed to withstand an exceptional amount of pressure. PHOTO CREDIT: Cecily Sakrison

The LEED-certified NHMU building opened in 2011 with a bevy of site-specific, environmentally sensitive design solutions including planted roofs, solar panels, water-catchment cisterns and a pervious concrete parking lot surface designed to let stormwater runoff percolate back into the soil. The original lot’s high porosity was very effective but, over time, the lot started requiring increasingly numerous repairs and additional maintenance expenses due to uneven surfaces.

At the urging of the museum board, NHMU elected to upgrade to highly durable, permeable concrete interlocking pavers. A coarse sand-filled expansion joint around each paver allows water to percolate deep into the soil below, naturally filtering and recharging groundwater and eliminating the need to transport water off-site through additional infrastructure.

“The base layer had already been established,” noted Alter. “To lose that would have been a real shame.” Alter referred to the 2-3 feet of crushed rock that was reverse-slope graded back into the hillside and had been laid for the museum’s original lot. It’s the most important element of a permeable parking lot yet sometimes overlooked. “It’s so important that the whole system is properly engineered,” said Abby Curran, NHMU’s  Chief Operating Officer.

Project managers were able to design the installation plan to keep the museum’s lot open throughout construction with the exception of 3 days when crews worked to pave the entrance. PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Martin

“When we pave a surface we increase stormwater runoff and that can lead to problems.” said Civil Engineering Professor Christine Pomeroy.  “Excess runoff can cause erosion in urban waterways. It can flush out fish and insects that live in our streams. But it’s not only about bugs, bunnies, and treehugger stuff—erosion from high volumes of runoff can damage infrastructure, creating financial impacts.”

Many Wasatch Front residents don’t realize that, unlike water that’s funneled through the sanitary sewer system, anything that’s flushed down a storm drain goes straight to the valley’s creeks, rivers, ponds and canals. A General Public Stormwater Telephone Survey Report conducted in December 2017 for Salt Lake County found that “only 10 percent of respondents were correct when they said that ‘none’ of the county’s stormwater goes to a treatment plant.”

“Our streams can better maintain a healthy ecosystem if they’re not inundated with excess water,” notes Pomeroy.

Michael Brehm, U environmental compliance manager added “Nearly 10 years ago, the U adopted design standards and initiated policy and programs to accelerate the adoption of best management practices for stormwater. As we develop more of campus, the potential to interrupt the natural infiltration of rain becomes greater.  We’re aware of this and, in response, we’ve updated design standards to replicate natural recharge of water as closely as possible.”

The museum’s respect for and sense of place guided both the re-paving decision and process. Old concrete went to a reuse facility, new pavers were machine-layed for time and cost efficiency and half-pavers that were originally “waste product” of the machine-laying process were repurposed as borders.  “The exterior of the museum is just as important as the interior,” said Curran. “We have many programs that take advantage of our natural, native environment. Being mindful of that space and its natural systems enriches what we can offer our visitors.”


Watershed Stories is a series exploring water work across the University of Utah campus. The stories are curated by the U Water Center, the Sustainability Office and the Global Change & Sustainability Center.

WATER IN THE NAVAJO NATION

AFTER THE RAIN

By: Liz Ivkovich, Global Change & Sustainability Center. 

Last week, 30 officials from city, county, and state agencies boarded a university shuttle on a tour of campus stormwater infrastructure. For participants, these projects offer a vision for what is possible when it comes to protecting the Jordan River watershed we all share.

Central to the tour was the announcement of $300,000 in new funding awarded to the Center for Ecological Planning & Design by the Utah Division of Water Quality. This grant will be matched with support from University Real Estate Administration to create the new Landscape Lab at the Williams Building.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

30 officials from the city, county, and state agencies attended a tour at the University of Utah campus.

The Landscape Lab’s goal is to demonstrate sound stormwater management practices. It will transform a one-acre area of water-intensive turfgrass south of the Williams Building into a picturesque, walkable space featuring local plants that reduce irrigation demand. The Williams Building is adjacent to Red Butte Creek, a tributary of the Jordan River.

All stormwater in Salt Lake City ultimately ends up in the Jordan River. Keeping stormwater on-site will not only protect the Jordan River from pollutants and flooding, it will significantly reduce irrigation costs for the Williams Building.

Sarah Hinners, director of the Center for Ecological Planning & Design, intends for the lab to test how well different types of stormwater management features work in our Northern Utah climate.

“Part of what makes this project unique is the multidisciplinary team of soil, plant, and planning experts and engineers involved in it,” said Hinners. “We are able to engage faculty expertise to monitor and share information about best practices with the rest of the Wasatch front.”  Dr. Hinner’s team of interested stakeholders also includes University Facilities and Operations staff, who oversee the design, construction, maintenance, environmental permitting and compliance of all stormwater on campus.

The lab will re-direct the water runoff from the Williams Building to its beautiful living plant communities. This allows the plant roots and microbial communities to take up pollutants and filter water through the soil to recharge the groundwater.

The grant received from the Utah Division of Water Quality is being matched with funds from University Real Estate Administration.

“Research Park and Real Estate Administration are excited to be involved in the new Landscape Lab at the Williams Building,” said Jonathan Bates, executive director of Real Estate Administration. “This opportunity to embrace research resulting in the direct implementation of sustainable water use techniques in a business park setting go to the core of the mission of Research Park. As the Park celebrates its 50th birthday we look forward to the opportunity to update our design standards to include concepts that come out of this exciting research initiative. Additionally, we look forward to future opportunities to blend research initiatives with commercial real estate development in order to show the financial, environmental and community benefits of sustainable design.”

In addition to the site of the Landscape Lab, the group also toured several existing low-impact development (LID) stormwater features on campus, including planned retrofits on the HPER mall, some updated permeable pavement at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the tiered bioswales and rain gardens near USTAR.

The all-day, valley-wide tour was initiated by the Jordan River Commission, an intergovernmental agency tasked with stewarding the Jordan River watershed and implementing the vision for the Jordan River Parkway.

According to Soren Simonsen, executive director of the Jordan River Commission, stormwater projects such as the Landscape Lab are increasingly important in northern Utah.

“The past century and a half of industrialization and urbanization in Salt Lake and Utah valleys have not always been kind to the Jordan River, ” said Simonsen. “We are confident that what we have learned about our ecosystem through science and application in more recent years will allow us to actually improve the Jordan River watershed as the region continues to grow. It will take a concerted effort, and we are excited to have incredible partners like the University of Utah to demonstrate innovative ways of retrofitting our landscapes and green infrastructure to improve water quality and habitat.”

The lab will test multiple designs for stormwater retention and filtration infrastructure. Sharing this research will minimize trial and error for city, county, and corporate agencies seeking to use these features in their communities.

The lab is the first phase of extensive redevelopment project for Red Butte Creek. Hinners expects to break ground on the lab in Fall 2018. She hopes that the project’s first phase will be completed by Summer 2019.

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.