Collaboration meets innovation in transformative Stanford environmental projects

Stanford funding kickstarts research aimed at developing a range of environmental solutions.

What do bird flight mechanics and renewable energy technology have to do with each other? By combining ongoing Stanford research on both, researchers hope to cut down on the number of birds and bats that collide with wind turbines’ spinning blades.

Birds and wind turbines

A Stanford grant combine recent research on bird visual flight control and vertical-turbine technology to lessen wind turbine effects on bird populations. (Image credit: MarkoGrothe/Pixabay)

This and nine other interdisciplinary projects focused on developing environmental solutions will receive funding from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s 2017 Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP) grants. Teams from across campus will collaborate on research aimed at developing innovations ranging from coral-safe sunscreen to a smartphone app that motivates pro-environmental behavior change.

“This year’s awardees represent an inspiring range of transformative approaches to cross-cutting environmental issues, geographies and disciplines,” said Nicole Ardoin, co-chair of the selection committee and an associate professor with a joint appointment in the Graduate School of Education and the Stanford Woods Institute.

Since the inceptions of the EVP program in 2004 and the REIP program in 2015, the Stanford Woods Institute has awarded more than $13 million in grants to 84 research teams representing all seven of Stanford’s academic schools and 47 departments. Working in more than 28 countries, these projects have garnered more than $51 million in follow-on funding, enabling researchers to build on and advance their initial findings.

Environmental Venture Projects

EVP grants support early-stage, high-risk research projects that identify transformative solutions. The projects selected for 2017 will each receive grants ranging from $29,909 to $200,000 over the next two years (lead principal investigators in bold):

Coral-Safe Sunscreen: William Mitch (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and John Pringle (Genetics). Snorkeling visits to coral reefs increase demand for preserving them. However, use of sunscreens by snorkelers and others has been associated with severe declines in coral reefs. Meanwhile, other sunscreens are marketed explicitly as “coral-safe.” There is little evidence to justify either of these claims. This project will characterize the chemical and biological mechanisms by which sunscreens may harm corals in order to guide the development and marketing of effective sunscreens that are not toxic to corals.

Menu Messaging to Reduce Meat Consumption: Greg Walton (Psychology), Neil Malhotra (Graduate School of Business) and Thomas Robinson (Pediatrics). How can we curb the current norm of environmentally unsustainable levels of meat consumption in developed countries? Research has shown that learning about the decline in meat consumption can lead people to order fewer dishes containing meat. Cooperating with chain restaurants, this project will test the effectiveness of incorporating norm-based messaging into restaurant menus and web-based meal ordering platforms for promoting consumption of plant-based dishes among large numbers of people.

Water and Energy Connections: Ram Rajagopal (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Bruce Cain (Political Science). Both the energy and water sectors face increasing demands. As smart water meters replace analog meters, what can water managers and end-users learn from energy smart metering? What demand responses in one system correlate to responses in the other? What management and behavioral strategies can reduce use of energy and water? Using data analytics, social science, modeling and policy expertise, this project will apply electricity smart meter data methods to water smart meter data; explore relationships between household water and electricity consumption; and pilot a water/energy feedback experiment.

Respiratory Disease Solution: Catherine Gorle (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Steve Luby (Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine). Respiratory diseases are a leading cause of child death globally, killing approximately 1.3 million children per year. Poor indoor air quality is a major cause of these infections and there are indications that improving ventilation could reduce respiratory illnesses. This project will develop and validate a computational framework for predicting ventilation rates in a variety of low-income household layouts and ventilation designs. The framework will provide essential information for analyzing results of an initial randomized control trial to evaluate the impact of ventilation interventions in homes in Bangladesh, and it will support the formulation of global ventilation recommendations.

Plant Life Performance: Helen Paris (Theater and Performance Studies), Leslie Hill (Theater and Performance Studies) and Seung Yon Rhee (Plant Biology, Carnegie Institution for Science). This project will culminate in the composition of a site-specific performance for public gardens and landscapes that will educate audiences about conservation, and examine the environmental impacts of our relationship with plants. The researchers will highlight plant life particularly vulnerable to extinction, and create a performance piece in which audiences are led on an immersive and intimate journey of music, plant sounds and lyrical text exploring the world of plants and the role they play in our lives.

Natural Flood Mitigation:Jack Baker (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Gretchen Daily (Biology). Deforestation and unplanned development increase the risk of flood damage to lives and property, particularly in dense urban and coastal areas. Decision-makers around the world want to incorporate into planning information about the conditions in which natural ecosystems and land management can help mitigate flood risks. However, there is currently no tool to perform a relevant, rapid assessment. This project will couple an existing global flood risk model and a damage estimation model to assess ecosystem flood mitigation service and value.

Environmental Behavior Change App: James Landay (Computer Science) and Alia Crum (Psychology). Solutions to global environment and health challenges, such as obesity and climate change, will require significant behavior changes. This project aims to motivate pro-environmental and healthy behavior change by visualizing behavioral goals and their progress on smartphones. Researchers will study the effect of an app they developed that combines sustainability and fitness behavior tracking with multi-chapter narratives. The app’s continually visible display will push users to achieve their sustainability and fitness goals.

Tobacco Labeling Assessment: Judith Prochaska (School of Medicine) and Eric Lambin (School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences). Despite declines in the prevalence of cigarette smoking in the U.S., the number of smokers has remained relatively stable at around 40 million due in part to population growth. Another factor: Many tobacco companies attempt to decrease negative perceptions by promoting their corporate social responsibility and emphasizing that their brands are “environmentally friendly.” This project will use a randomized experimental design to examine the effect of pro-environment product labeling on adults’ tobacco-related perceptions and to identify effective public health counterstrategies.

Realizing Environmental Innovation Program

REIP is designed to help projects that demonstrate promising solution approaches move from the discovery phase of research to the next stages of solution validation and translation. The projects selected for 2017 will each receive $200,000 grants over the next two years (lead principal investigators in bold):

Bird-Safe Wind Turbines: David Lentink (Mechanical Engineering) and John Dabiri (Civil and Environmental Engineering). Despite the potential contribution of wind energy to emissions reductions, wind turbines have significant ecological impacts through the killing of birds and bats that collide with spinning blades. In this way, expansion of wind energy parks around the globe will have a proportional increasing impact on the ecosystem. Many wind energy parks overlap with important bird corridors recognized by the Audubon Society. This project will address this sustainability roadblock by combining recent Stanford research on bird visual flight control and vertical-turbine technology.

Open Space Management Model: Nicole Ardoin (Graduate School of Education) and Deborah Gordon (Biology). This project will evaluate a solutions-focused open space management practicum course the researchers have piloted at Stanford. The practicum models how universities and land trusts might create on-the-ground conservation impact by engaging students and land managers in research to produce conservation solutions. Once evaluated at a local and regional scale, the researchers will expand the work nationally through networked partners, such as the Land Trust Alliance. They aim to develop a digital interactive atlas and other tools; expand to other conservation agencies; enhance research opportunities for students; expand, apply and share evaluative research; and develop model projects and tools to share nationally.