November 2, 2009
Stanford faculty turn to Environmental Venture Projects to save the planet
By Janelle Weaver
You don't have to soar over skyscrapers sporting blue tights and a flowing red cape to save planet Earth. In fact, a lone superhero can't pull it off. To solve major global challenges, such as climate change, you need a solid team of researchers with a broad range of expertise.
That was the message delivered by more than a dozen Stanford faculty at the first Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) Forum hosted by the Woods Institute for the Environment. More than 100 people attended the October event at the Arrillaga Alumni Center, which featured a discussion on the value of interdisciplinary collaboration led by a panel of Stanford scholars from across the academic spectrum. Faculty also used the forum as an opportunity to discuss ideas for new project proposals next year.
Since 2004, the Woods Institute has awarded about $4.5 million in EVP grants to 33 research teams working in 10 countries. The two-year grants provide seed money for interdisciplinary research that focuses on finding practical solutions to real-world problems. Projects have addressed everything from carbon dioxide sequestration in forests to sustainable coastal tourism in Costa Rica.
The forum included presentations by six EVP grant recipients whose ongoing projects address a broad range of environmental challenges, including preventing acute respiratory diseases in Bangladesh, creating biodegradable composite materials for the building industry and reducing the social and environmental impact of Chile's salmon farming industry.
For some, the chance to collaborate with colleagues from different disciplines was an eye-opening experience. In 2006, biologist Stephen Palumbi, director of Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, received an EVP grant aimed at predicting coral reef responses to climate change. His interdisciplinary team includes Kevin Arrigo, associate professor of environmental Earth system science, and John Pringle, professor of genetics. "At some point, somebody is able to do something you have no idea how to do, and it saves the day," said Palumbi, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute.
In 2005, Carol Boggs, director of the Stanford Program in Human Biology, was awarded an EVP grant to conduct a feasibility study on the reintroduction of the Bay checkerspot butterfly to Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Her collaborators include faculty from the departments of Biology, History and Environmental Earth System Science and the Law School. "You have to think more broadly about the implications of what you're doing," said Boggs, reflecting on the challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration. "You have to remember to stretch your mind a little bit. That's the fun part."
Several speakers noted the difficulties associated with coordinating multiple principal investigators and establishing field sites overseas, but they all emphasized the value of diverse expertise in confronting complex environmental problems.
"It's hard to start going back to disciplinary work sometimes, because you're thinking about these big projects that have real gravity," said Scott Fendorf, professor of environmental Earth system science and senior fellow at the Woods Institute. Among the first EVP grant recipients, Fendorf has used project funding to identify low-cost ways of removing arsenic from groundwater in Asia, which contributes to the deaths of thousands of people in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar and Vietnam each year.
"Environmental Venture Projects represent what makes Stanford unique," said Woods Institute Co-Director Jeff Koseff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. "We bring together the brightest minds to work on innovative and potentially transformative research to find solutions to our planet's environmental challenges."
Stanford faculty members are invited to submit letters of intent for the seventh round of EVP grants. Letters can be submitted online at the EVP website. The deadline is Jan. 22, 2010.
Janelle Weaver is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.