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Stanford's Woods Institute awards new round of Environmental Venture Projects

BY MARK SHWARTZ

The Woods Institute for the Environment has awarded four new Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) grants for interdisciplinary research aimed at finding practical solutions promoting global sustainability. Four Stanford University faculty teams will receive a total of $791,692 over the next two years to tackle environmental challenges, from the desert grasslands of Australia to the mountain meadows of California.

Thirty-three EVP grants have been awarded since the annual program was established in 2004. This year's grantees include 13 faculty from a variety of disciplines, including marine ecology, geochemistry, biology, anthropology, astronautics and Earth sciences. Recipients were selected by an EVP faculty committee led by Woods Institute Senior Fellows Scott Fendorf and David M. Kennedy.

"The EVP program is entering a new, 'mature' phase," said Kennedy, professor emeritus of history and director of Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West. "Many of the earliest projects funded by the program have now come to completion, and several of those have gone on to secure continuing funding from outside agencies."

One example is a 2006 EVP seed grant to improve basic sanitation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In 2008, the EVP researchers were awarded a three-year, National Science Foundation grant to expand the number of households participating in the study. "This is precisely the result that the EVP program hoped for—giving initial funding to innovative, high-risk interdisciplinary collaborations so that they could prove their merit and successfully receive ongoing funding from more traditional sources," Kennedy said.

On May 18, the president of Tanzania and other government officials made a special visit to the Woods Institute to hear an update on the project. In July, the EVP research team will lead a two-day symposium in Tanzania on water and health issues in that country.

EVP Symposium

To encourage campus-wide participation in the EVP program, the Woods Institute will host the first Environmental Venture Projects Symposium on Oct. 7 from 1 to 6 p.m. at the Arrillaga Alumni Center. The event will feature faculty updates on several recent EVP projects and a panel discussion on how to recruit and work successfully in interdisciplinary teams.

"We warmly encourage those to attend who want to learn more about the program and about how to submit a successful proposal," Kennedy said. "We are especially keen on engaging researchers from outside the usual environmental sciences who can bring to bear fresh perspectives on environmental issues."

The EVP Symposium will include time for faculty to pitch research ideas to their colleagues, followed by a networking reception and poster session. For more information on this free event, contact Paula Wetzel at pwetzel@stanford.edu.

Here are the four projects awarded EVP grants this year:

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding the Role of Anthropogenic Fire in the Desert Grasslands of Australia: Intentional burning is increasingly being recognized as an important force in shaping ecosystems over time. In Australia, the impact of anthropogenic fire has been particularly significant, with indigenous burning hypothesized to have radically altered the continent's biogeography. This EVP will investigate temporal and spatial variability in fire, resource management and habitat modification in Australia's Western Desert. Examining how these practices have changed may better inform models of fire management in arid regions throughout the world.

Principal Investigator (PI): Douglas Bird (Anthropology). Co-PIs: Rebecca Bird and James Holland Jones (Anthropology), Page Chamberlain (Environmental Earth System Science), Katharine Maher (Geological and Environmental Sciences), Tadashi Fukami (Biology).

Biophysical Interactions in a Near-Shore Kelp Ecosystem: Observations and Implications for Monitoring and Design of Marine Protected Areas: To accurately assess the efficacy of marine protected areas, scientists will need a better understanding of how biophysical processes operate at small scales in marine protected areas. By establishing a kelp forest observatory in the marine protected area adjacent to Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, the EVP team will be able to monitor small-scale physical, chemical and biological processes that affect near-shore fish assemblages within the marine protected area.

PI: Stephen Monismith (Civil and Environmental Engineering). Co-PIs: Mark Denny and Fiorenza Micheli (Biology, Hopkins Marine Station).

Northern California Water Supply: Meadow Restoration for Adaptation to Climate Change: In an average year in Northern California, the Feather River watershed provides flow equal to 40 percent of reservoir storage in the State Water Project system, which supplies water to 20 million people and 660,000 acres of irrigated farmland. At the headwaters of the watershed are mountain meadows that buffer floodwaters and store and release groundwater, but over the past 150 years virtually all of the meadows have dried up due to human activities. Using airborne and satellite remote sensing, field data analysis and ecosystem service modeling, researchers will evaluate meadow restoration as an effective adaptation tool to combat climate change, develop a method to screen meadows as candidates for restoration and quantify changes in ecosystem services.

PI: Steven Gorelick (Environmental Earth System Science). Co-PI: Gretchen Daily (Biology).

High-Rate Microbial Production of Nitrous Oxide for Energy Production: This project joins the fields of space propulsion and environmental biotechnology to develop a bioreactor that converts waste nitrogen into nitrous oxide that is subsequently decomposed into nitrogen and oxygen for thermal power generation. The goal is to develop a low-cost technique that removes nitrogen from water and produces oxygen as a byproduct instead of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. PI: Brian Cantwell (Aeronautics and Astronautics; Mechanical Engineering). Co-PI: Craig Criddle (Civil and Environmental Engineering).