Institute to unite environmental researchers at 'U'

Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 23, 2005

With an energy crisis, global warming and escalating pollution threatening populations worldwide, the University recently announced the "Captain Planet" of research groups: the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute.

With the combined powers of more than 300 professors from seven University schools, the GESI aims to uncover ways to protect the environment and devise strategies to meet the current need for natural resources.

GESI will emphasize interdisciplinary research in five areas that it is uniquely positioned to approach because of the variety of research and courses available at the University, said Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment. These research areas include energy, fresh water, human health, biodiversity and infrastructure.

Currently, professors and graduate students at one school are often unaware of environmental research being done at others, Associate Provost Phil Hanlon said. Ken Kohrs, special counsel to the provost, said the quality of environmental research at the University will be improved by a new web portal sponsored by the GESI, which lists all the relevant research being done at the University.

But more importantly, the GESI will facilitate contributions from the various schools toward the advancement of environmental research into practical applications.

An ongoing Engineering research project attempting to create an improved type of cement is one example of a task that could be aided by interdisciplinary research, Bierbaum said. The cement, strengthened by fibers, is less likely to crack or erode than normal cement. But the substance has implications that other schools at the University need to investigate in order for it to reach the ground.

"The School of Business could deal in marketing the cement to construction companies, the School of Architecture and Urban Design could design the uses for the new cement and the School of Natural Resources and the Environment could discern how much waste and pollution is prevented by the new cement," Bierbaum said. "Then, the School of Public Health could analyze statistics to determine how that decrease in waste and pollution affects the health of the people living nearby."

The University's close proximity to the automobile, pharmaceutical and chemical industries make corporate-sponsored research a distinct possibility, Hanlon said. Bierbaum said some researchers at the University are currently working on developing hybrid vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells, both crucial to the future of the auto industry as worldwide petroleum reserves become depleted.

"The institute will be an entry point for companies or federal agencies that need expert assistance," Hanlon said. "Let's say a company wants to make a new product but wants to make it fuel-efficient and design it so all the parts can be disposed of. They want to know, 'Does the University have experts that could help me with this?' The institute will have that information."

Engineering alum Don Graham and an industrial magnate, who contributed half of the GESI's $10.5-million budget, approached the University three years ago with the idea to create an institute to encourage cooperative research in the field of environmental sustainability. Graham's dedication to the field stems from the work of his father, a former professor in the University's School of Forestry, the SNRE's predecessor. Sam Graham researched the consequences of DDT, a type of pesticide, and falling water tables before these dangers were widely understood. The younger Graham pioneered the technology behind the recycling of plastics with his Graham Engineering Company.

Ken Kohrs, special counsel to the provost, spent more than a year creating an inventory of all the University's research and courses in environmental sustainability. University units that will be involved with the institute include the SNRE, the schools of Engineering, Public Health, Business, Architecture and Urban Planning, Public Policy and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. The institute will be housed in the Dana Building, Interim Provost Edward Gramlich said.

Gramlich and the deans of the participating schools have begun the search for the institute's director and staff, both of which they hope to have in place by fall 2006.

"It's ambitious, but we're going to try," Hanlon said.