By Lorenzo Perez
Karen McGlathery’s research as an environmental sciences professor frequently takes her to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where she has directed the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program since 2004. More than half of the world’s population lives on coasts and along rivers, and, as indicated by the growing body of scientific research, major cities and population centers around the world are increasingly confronting severe storms, such as Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey; flooding; and declining water security.
McGlathery and other leading environmental scientists in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences are examining how much of this change is natural and how much is caused by human activity. As they attempt to expand our understanding of the many ways a changing global climate affects societies, and what actions we can take to create more environmentally resilient cities and coastlines, a new University of Virginia institute is encouraging collaborations by researchers not just in the environmental sciences, but in economics, engineering, architecture, the humanities and other disciplines.
Led by Karen McGlathery, the new Environmental Resilience Institute brings together resources from across the University. Faculty and students from Arts & Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Architecture, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the Curry School of Education, the McIntire School of Commerce, the Miller Center of Public Affairs and the schools of Law, Nursing and Medicine all will have a role.
“Environmental change is one of the biggest issues the world is facing, and it cannot be dealt with by people working only independently and strictly within their disciplines,” said McGlathery, UVA’s associate vice president for research, sustainability and the environment. “The institute will build teams that cross disciplinary boundaries, work together to develop novel ideas and approaches, and transform the way that we do research.
There’s just a wealth of people here at UVA doing work in many related fields, and finding ways to connect them will accelerate the process and the impact of our research.”
As the institute develops, McGlathery said it will focus on regions as well as resources such as water and energy that are at high risk. “These are mostly systems problems, and so integrating knowledge about the natural world, technology and infrastructure, human behavior and institutions is needed to inform choices about the future,” she said. “That’s where collaborating with engineers, architects and environmental scientists is really important, as is connecting with policy makers and economists and social scientists to make our research actionable. We have to collaborate, share ideas and find solutions together.”
UVA scientists already conduct environmental research in regions on every continent from the tropics to the poles, serving as a “jumping off point” for global studies on climate and land use change, water and energy security, and other issues. Last fall, two more internationally renowned environmental scientists, Scott C. Doney and Lawrence E. Band, joined the Arts & Sciences faculty to help propel a series of new interdisciplinary research initiatives. Both serve on the faculty advisory group for the Environmental Resilience Institute.
A marine chemistry researcher and one of the world’s foremost experts in climate science, Doney is UVA’s first Joe D. and Helen J. Kington Professor in Environmental Change, a professorship provided by Mark Kington (Darden ’88) and his wife Ann in honor of Mr. Kington’s parents.
“The weaponization of climate change by both the left and right has been discouraging and an impediment to progress on this, perhaps the most important issue of our time. I am proud that UVA has chosen to focus on what is fundamental, science, in hiring Scott Doney and his colleagues. UVA is destined to be a world leader and change agent in the years ahead.” — Mark Kington
Doney, who was considered in 2010 for a presidential appointment as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, comes to the University from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where his research as senior scientist focused on the effects of both natural and human-driven climate change.
His arrival coincided with the appointment of Band, an eco-hydrologist known for his groundbreaking research on natural and urban watersheds and their roles in mitigating and adapting to the negative effects of climate change—such as flooding and drought—and in the provision of high-quality fresh water. While serving as the College’s Ernest H. Ern Professor of Environmental Sciences, Band also holds a joint appointment in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“The College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences is extremely excited to have scientists of Scott Doney and Larry Band’s caliber joining our faculty,” Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom said. “These appointments serve as critical steps in this University’s strategic effort in the area of environmental resilience.”
Spanning oceanography, climate science and biogeochemistry, Doney’s work identifying the acidification of oceans as they’ve absorbed billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions has made him one of the most prominently cited researchers in ecology and the geosciences. Two post-doctoral researchers joined his new UVA lab group last year and are using ocean field data and remote-sensing to assess changing conditions in the Antarctic and North Atlantic. In December, Doney deployed to the Antarctic as part of the Palmer LTER project and he is also involved in the UVA-lead LTER program on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This spring he is teaching a new undergraduate/graduate course on the changing global carbon cycle, focusing on human influences and their impacts on climate.
“I’ve always wanted to be at a public university, and the chance to teach at a place such as the University of Virginia that offers such an excellent undergraduate education is a great opportunity,” Doney said.
A fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union, Doney has extensive leadership experience serving national and international research initiatives convened by the National Academy of Sciences, NOAA and other science working groups. In 2013, he received the A.G. Huntsman Award for Excellence in the Marine Sciences from the Royal Society of Canada and Huntsman Foundation at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.
“For a number of years, my career has been headed toward looking for solutions to environmental problems, and that involves more than just natural science,” Doney said.
“You’ve got to work not only with the scientific stakeholders, but also with people who understand the engineering side, as well as the social science side and the political side. The Kington Chair enables just that. It allows me to reach across Grounds and really spend time talking with people and understanding their perspectives.”
Band came to UVA after nearly two decades at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served as director of the UNC Institute for the Environment for the last nine years of his tenure. Band helped transform that institute from an academic initiative focused on undergraduate education to an influential research and public service institute, experience that the UVA Environmental Resilience Institute will leverage as it gets off the ground.
Band’s extensive research has taken him to landscapes across North America, Australia and China. In 2014, Band was named the Geological Society of America Birdsall-Dreiss Distinguished Lecturer, which allowed him to present 50 talks around the world. He became a fellow of the Geological Society of America that same year, and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2015.
Band said he is looking for opportunities to develop and co-teach new classes in urban and watershed resilience with colleagues in the Department of Environmental Sciences and in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Working with the Environmental Resilience Institute, Band will be adapting his research on urban ecosystems, the modeling and analysis of urban tree canopy, the impact of green infrastructure on stormwater, carbon and nutrient loading to coastal waters and the impacts of climate and land use change on the quantity and quality of freshwater supplies.
“I have always found the most interesting and challenging issues at the intersection of our disciplines,” Band said. “The University’s new, interdisciplinary initiatives in environmental resilience, data science and cyber-physical systems and the potential to develop innovative solutions to key environmental challenges with faculty and students across the university are especially intriguing.”
Established in May 2017, the Institute is working with $2 million in University-provided seed funding to kick-start collaborative investigations that convene partners in novel ways and that could lead to major grants from funding agencies. Increasingly, federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation are seeking to fund large-scale, big problem, collaborative and multidisciplinary projects, often called “convergence” research. These kinds of projects could be game-changers in major problem areas.
McGlathery said the Institute will be able to build upon UVA’s rich history of environmental research across several schools. She also is building partnerships outside the University with government agencies, nonprofits and industry. The idea is to engage a broader community to help identify problems and work with researchers to find solutions. Institute researchers also will pursue “rapid response” grants, funding time-sensitive research and workshops that produce rapid results or address event-related issues, such as a major storm or drought.
Because the Institute is focused on training future leaders, Arts & Sciences students and their classmates across Grounds will play a key role as well. Student and post-doctoral fellows will get to pursue innovative research projects at the intersection of several disciplines. With a program based on a successful model funded by a grant from the Jefferson Trust, they will be advised by faculty in two or more departments or schools. There are also efforts underway to provide students with “real world” experience working as summer “externs” with outside partners in government and nongovernment organizations.
“UVA is poised to become one of the top universities working at the intersection of the environment and society,” McGlathery said. “We can change the way research is done through cross-disciplinary collaboration, and the time to do it is now. Otherwise the rapid changes to the environment that we are experiencing, such as coastal flooding, will outpace our ability to manage the consequences.”
“With the addition of Scott Doney and Larry Band to our existing faculty strength, we are in contention to be the best place for the study of resilience in the nation,” added Thomas C. Katsouleas, executive vice president and provost of the University of Virginia. “Their work, in concert with our new Institute and Karen’s leadership, will help us solve some of the world’s most intractable environmental problems.”