New building to be hub for multidisciplinary studies

L.A. Cicero Y2E2

The literal transparency of Y2E2—with its open social spaces and its conference rooms and lab spaces visible to passers-by—is intended to foster spontaneous interactions and lead to greater multidisciplinary collaboration among scholars from a wide range of fields.

Nobody likes moving. There are boxes, things get lost, nobody can find your

new office and the phone always takes longer to reconnect than planned.

That said, the move to Y2E2 came as good news to environmental researchers.

For them, the building promises the ability to work closely, in the physical

sense of the word, with colleagues in many disciplines.

A month after packing and unpacking, Dick Luthy, the Silas H. Palmer Professor

of Civil Engineering and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment,

said that even as the moving process was under way, he could sense a difference.

“Prior to moving into the building, casual interactions with colleagues in

other disciplines were rare outside of organized activities. It is apparent

already in just one month that those days are over. We all are experiencing

a greater social dynamic across all areas of energy and environment.”

When the building was first conceived, scholars, planners and architects were

intent on promoting multidisciplinary interaction through architecture. Studies

have shown that unscheduled encounters are critical for knowledge-based organizations.

As Luthy said, it’s one thing to plan a meeting, another thing altogether to

be confident that on a daily basis one will run into someone and get new ideas.

Many of the Earth sciences people remain in Mitchell, Green and the Braun Geology

Corner, but others are moving. Also, the institutes and centers that illustrate

the potentials of cross-disciplinary collaboration have moved in: among them

are the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Global Climate and Energy

Project, the Center for Ocean Solutions, the Precourt Institute for Energy

Efficiency, the Environment and Natural Resources Law and Policy Project, the

Program on Food Security and the Environment and the Bill Lane Center for the

Study of the North American West.

Affiliates of the many centers and departments, housed both in Y2E2 and elsewhere,

participate in a wide range of initiatives aimed at bringing people together

from diverse areas.

One of the best examples is the ongoing Water Seminar, sponsored by the Woods

Institute. It began in fall 2007, when Luthy summoned his freshwater colleagues

to a town meeting so that everyone could find out what everyone else was doing.

In 10-minute presentations, they talked about hydrology, regulation, disease,

waste, climate change, aridity and water supply. Since then, regular seminars

have taken place on such subjects as water regulation in China, reservoir modeling

and the ever-popular solid waste management led by researchers known as the

poop group, whose work takes them to Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In addition to the research centers, interdisciplinary degree programs also

have a new home in Y2E2, including the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in

Environment and Resources (IPER) and the undergraduate Earth Systems Program.

The building also houses two departments: the Department of Civil and Environmental

Engineering and the new Department of Environmental Earth System Science in

the School of Earth Sciences, which aims to look at the full complexity of

the global system, including the interactions, synergies and feedbacks that

link the oceans, atmosphere, land surfaces and freshwater systems.

Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences and

the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Environmental Studies, won’t be

moving into the building, but her enthusiasm is second to no one’s. Indeed,

she was one of the principal instigators of the new building.

“Y2E2 is truly a wonderful interactive space for the people who are housed

there, but it is much, much more,” she said. For scientists and teachers like

herself, the new building “is a coming-together place, a perfect gathering

place for interdisciplinary research teams, student groups, seminars and projects.

Y2E2 was designed for use by our entire multidisciplinary environmental community

on campus.”

The building’s various thematic communities, or research clusters, are signaled

by colors: red is for climate and energy, blue for oceans and estuaries, yellow

for land use and conservation, and green for fresh water. Thus, occupants and

visitors are made aware of the focus areas as they move around the building.

The architects also intended that these colors serve as a navigational tool:

It makes it easier for people to give directions to events at the building

and find their way to meetings.

Even for those who did not have to pack up their offices, Y2E2 seems to be

acting as a magnet. Rob Dunbar, the J. Frederick and Elisabeth Brewer Weintz

University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, a professor in the Department

of Geological and Environmental Sciences, a saltwater and climate man, and

founding director of IPER and the Victoria P. and Roger W. Sant Director of

the Earth Systems Program, still has his main office in Braun Geology Corner.

“But I find I am actually spending significant time [at Y2E2], at least part

of a day three times a week,” he said. “It is one-stop shopping for many of

the folks I work with, folks that used to be spread out all over campus.”