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Research Grant Aims to Ensure Economic and Social Prosperity of Coastal Communities

Forty percent of the world’s 7.6 billion people now live within 100 kilometers of a coast. In the U.S., coastal counties have the highest population densities and also house 39 percent of the U.S. population. Furthermore, nitrogen pollution and rising sea levels from changes in climate are widely observed in coastal areas. These and other adverse environmental impacts are linked to human activities and unfortunately result in decreased economic and social well-being of coastal residents and visitors.

Training the next generation of problem solvers and developing solutions for these adverse outcomes of human activity in coastal areas is the focus of educators and researchers from the University of South Florida and the University of the Virgin Islands. They will use a $2.5 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) award to develop ways of ensuring the sustainability of coastal communities and essential resources such as food, energy and water.

The project is expected to train over 100 graduate students from USF and UVI, representing diverse fields of study such as environmental and civil engineering, anthropology and marine sciences. The multidisciplinary nature of the project is intended to develop workforce STEM capabilities that promote innovative solutions to problems arising from population growth and intensive changes in land use along coastlines.

The project will train a new generation of globally competent practitioners and scholars with interdisciplinary skills to address increasingly complex problems related to management of food, water, and energy. Outcomes from the research will not only help close the nutrient loop determine how to safely recover valuable resources from wastewater to reduce energy and freshwater demands while also supporting food production, but also investigate reusing treated wastewater to provide cooling water for local energy production or water and fertilizers to support local food production.

Besides the academic relationships involved, the project seeks to build community connections that take into account local environmental, economic, and sociocultural considerations as well as engineering infrastructure requirements. The researchers apply the term “systems thinking,” to their approach because it considers an impacted coastal community as a whole system rather than isolated parts.

“I think the strength of this grant is the partnerships we’re building,” says USF Professor Maya Trotz, who is the principal investigator for the project. “It captures the purpose of the grant.”

Trotz earned her Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from Stanford University, and is also a faculty leader with USF’s National Center for Nutrient Management of Aging Infrastructure.

She has conducted research in areas such as sustainability, ecotourism and water quality during her tenure at the College of Engineering.

One aspect of the grant that co-principal investigator Qiong Zhang points out is that students and researchers will have to figure a lot of things out for themselves as part of the creative solution-finding process.

“The training program is not like a traditional training program,” says Zhang, who is an Associate Professor in the USF Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Students will have to apply whole systems thinking to define the problems they will be facing.”

And when the research teams are confronted with a problem, there will be plenty of perspectives to consider, according to co-principal investigator Sarina Ergas.

“The idea of having these teams of anthropology students and marine science and engineering students being able to bring the interdisciplinary focus on these Florida and Caribbean coastal issues, I think that’s a major strength of the program,” says Ergas who is a USF Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor. “It brings people together people that have different ways of looking at problems and can provide more holistic solutions.”

USF Anthropology Department Chair and Professor David Himmelgreen is a faculty mentor with the project. He’s contributed to other engineering-related projects in the past and says the experience has been worthwhile.

“One thing that really attracted me to this, was this idea of cross-training between social scientists and engineers,” he says. “My engineers learn how to do some anthropology and anthropologists learn how to do a little bit of engineering and that’s the kind of training we definitely need today to address this complex issue.”

Parsing the cultural and social influences in a community-based research setting calls for a trained anthropologist and co-principal investigator Rebecca Zarger is happy to contribute her skills and knowledge to the project.

“To me the most exciting thing about this project is the focus on community engagement, collaboration and partnership with colleagues, students and people living in coastal communities that are already being affected by things like sea level rise, extractive industries and tourism that may not have their best interests in mind,” says Zarger, who is an associate professor in USF’s Department of Anthropology.

Zarger also cites the relationship between USF and UVI as exemplifying the approach the researchers are taking toward their project.

“The past record that’s already been established by faculty and students through the NSF PIRE (Partnerships for International Research and Education) is a great foundation for building an even stronger partnership with our collaborators and showing students through that collaboration how to addresses these linked issues of providing healthy food water and energy.”

Sennai Habtes is a Research Assistant Professor of Biological Oceanography at UVI who is collaborating with the USF researchers, many of whom have previously conducted research with UVI and benefit from his on-the-ground knowledge of the Caribbean region.

“We’re building on the existing collaboration with USF that brings a lot of experience in areas that UVI doesn’t particularly have to stakeholders and sectors of our community that don’t usually interact with academia,” says Habtes, whose research emphasis is on marine ecosystems. “The training that we’re doing for students is truly global. We’re having our students participate in field sites throughout this part of the world not simply by integrating them into classroom activities but getting them to partner on research activities.”

Habtes adds that such place-based education is an important part of developing systems thinking practices.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor James Mihelcic is a co-principal investigator for the project who has worked with UVI faculty and students and values the contributions they make to joint endeavors such as research projects and a dual-degree program.

“It’s a very important relationship for our college,” he says. “The partnership with UVI is not new.”

While much of the project’s work will take place in locations familiar to some members of the research team, Trotz says there are new dimensions to be explored over the grant’s five-year funding period.

“One of the more unique aspects is actually engaging with the utilities in the different locations and not only showing a way to engage with research and academia for utilities but also improving their ways of connecting with the communities that they serve.”

Trotz also cites the wide range of expertise brought together for the project and likens it to “building an ecosystem to support food, energy and water that uses everybody’s capabilities in the best way possible.”

Story by Brad Stager, USF College of Engineering

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