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Four faculty research projects at the University of Michigan received a combined $4.5 million investment from the University this month to pursue their research on social and environmental justice, according to a June 21 press release. The grants are a part of LSA’s Meet the Moment initiative, which awards funding to faculty whose research addresses urgent social issues. 

The projects fall into two categories: A “Change the World” project, which can receive up to $2 million in funding extended over a five-year period; or a “Vital Impact” project, which can receive up to $250,000 extended over a two-year period. 

Anne Thomson, director of Research and Compliance for LSA, said LSA expects to fund another round of four projects in 2024, though they have not yet officially announced a call for applications. 

Thomson said the University established this initiative as a way to direct attention and resources to research with the potential to bring about concrete change. 

“We in LSA are uniquely positioned to bridge some of the things that have been happening in the world and what we can do to make it a better place,” Thomson said. “We have expert faculty, we have all the resources, we’ve got motivated and engaged students who are willing to learn new things and be part of something bigger than just their own disciplines … These projects are about combining all of these things together and bringing about something that can actually, truly make a difference.”

The Michigan Daily spoke with members of the research team for each of the selected proposals to understand their projects’ goals and the implications of their research. 

Confronting the carceral state: criminalization, confinement and control

Heather Ann Thompson, Christian Davenport, Matthew Lassiter, Kentaro Toyama, Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, Melissa Borja, Ruby Tapia and William Lopez

This “Change the World” project will examine historical trends and present-day conditions in the American criminal justice system, including mass incarceration, police violence, wrongful convictions, systemic racism and immigration detention. Through studying historical archives, oral histories and other first-hand accounts, researchers hope to increase awareness and transparency on contemporary issues in the U.S. carceral system. 

Heather Thompson, professor of Afro-American and African studies and history, said her area of focus within the project will be the conditions of confinement in American prisons. Thompson said she hopes the collection and dissemination of this research will spark political and civic action on the issue of mass incarceration. 

“Despite so much discussion about criminal justice reform, we still, sadly, have barely moved the needle on mass incarceration,” Thompson said. “We still have nearly 2 million people locked up in this country, and so we are hoping that by calling attention to this phenomenon, by documenting what’s going on on the inside, we can get legislators to look at this situation and hopefully shine some light on the inside.”

Political science professor Christian Davenport’s research will focus on wrongful convictions, as well as documenting dishonest or illegal practices by officials in the justice system. Davenport said one goal of this project is to shift focus from individual actors to larger networks of wrongdoing in American institutions, including the state.

“Most of the time, we’re focused on people who challenge the state,” Davenport said. “And in a sense, we’ve given state actors not necessarily a pass, but we haven’t looked at them with the same degree of scrutiny that we’ve looked at terrorists, for example, or insurgents or rioters or rebels. And so part of it is this broader sweep to kind of turn more directly towards the state, but also a certain degree of frustration with regards to the fact that we have (state actors) that engage in illegal activities, wrongful activities, morally heinous activities, and they’re allowed to get away with it.” 

Through a study of media coverage, court documents and other historical archives, Davenport said the team plans to generate a record, most likely from World War II to present day, of wrongful activity on the part of the justice system. The team hopes the record will reveal connections and patterns that have previously gone unnoticed, compelling the criminal justice system to be more fair and transparent. 

“Many outcomes emerge,” Davenport said. “One is that individuals that have been wrongfully convicted would be released. More preemptively, individuals that would potentially be treated in a wrongful manner would not be because we’ve pulled the perpetrators off the street.”

History professor Matt Lassiter said his research will work to document the use of fatal force by police officers in the state of Michigan. Lassiter has previously worked on the “Detroit Under Fire” project, which examined historical archives to record and investigate instances of fatal force in Detroit. With the grant from the Meet the Moment initiative, Lassiter said he plans to expand this work into the entire state to understand historical and current patterns in police violence. 

Lassiter said he hopes this research will increase visibility and transparency surrounding police violence and provide valuable context for policy reform. 

“Our policymaking and our media discussion often lacks sufficient historical context,” Lassiter said. “For example, a lot of media, a lot of understanding of police violence in the U.S., really starts in about 2001, 2002, because that’s when Google News and other internet-accessible databases start. So by going back further, we’re able to use the password-protected databases we have access to provide more historical context. So it’s really just for journalists, for policy makers — providing information and context that’s not really out there.”

Lassiter also emphasized the unique role of undergraduates as collaborators in this research undertaking and said he believes this project will allow young people to have a direct effect on policy-making and advocacy by analyzing and disseminating critical information about the criminal justice system. 

“We have realized that undergraduates often write a great paper in a class, and the only person who reads it is the professor or the GSI,” Lassiter said. “Why can’t students make a documentary film? Why can’t history students do the same thing that science and engineering students do, which is do things that are going to have a public impact?”

Measuring, modeling and mapping microplastics in the atmosphere of Michigan

Anne McNeil, Andrew Ault, Ambuj Tewari, Paul Zimmerman, Allison Steiner and Mary Starr

This “Change the World” project will work to measure and map the quantity of microplastics in the air in the state of Michigan. The team will combine spectroscopy and statistical modeling to identify and draw conclusions about the presence of different types of microplastics in different areas across the state. 

Andrew Ault, associate professor of chemistry, said collecting this data will be crucial in expanding our understanding of the main sources of microplastics and the associated exposure risks.

“Microplastics are an emerging pollutant, and you’re exposed to large numbers in the environment every day, but most of the research so far has focused on drinking or eating and how that might be a way that we are exposed to microplastics,” Ault said. “What this project is going to try to understand is, how much is getting up into the air? This could be anything from tire bits getting kicked up, to microplastics coming out of the Great Lakes, all the way to things coming out of dryers.” 

Anne McNeil, professor of chemistry and macromolecular science and engineering, explained that there are two primary methods of sampling air: active sampling, which involves collecting air through a pump, and passive sampling, which collects airborne particles on a surface to be analyzed. According to McNeil, the team opted for passive sampling to suit their goal of collaborating with local high school students and teachers.

McNeil said they will be piloting this program in a few high schools in the coming year and providing these schools with the equipment to collect air samples, and then expanding into at least one school in every county in Michigan. According to McNeil, the pilot schools will all be located within a two-hour drive of Ann Arbor. 

“We’ll be working with a high school science teacher in every county in Michigan and their students, and so they will be part of the research study,” McNeil said. “One of the things I’m really in love with (about) this project is that we have the power to inform all of these people and get them really engaged. They’re actual participants in our research process. They’re gonna go out there and put the samplers out there, collect the samplers, send it to us, we’ll analyze the data, but then we can give the data back to them, and they can play around with it.”

Statistics professor Ambuj Tewari said the team’s plan to incorporate machine learning into their data analysis will have far-reaching implications for the ability to measure and document microplastics in other areas. 

“What we want to use machine learning for is to accelerate the process of taking the sample — which probably has microplastics, but all sorts of other air pollutants will also stick onto the sample,” Tewari said. “It’s a very time-consuming, laborious process to take that sample and figure out what microplastics are contained in that. It’s very manual right now … and if we can automate it using machine learning and algorithms, if we can make the workflow faster, that will enable microplastic research, not just here in Michigan, but throughout the globe.” 

McNeil said aside from their work’s impacts on public awareness and microplastics research techniques, it also has implications for environmental justice advocacy in Michigan. 

“The state of Michigan has a whole environmental justice public advocate office and they’ve been working on mapping air pollution metrics in the context of neighborhoods and socioeconomic status,” McNeil said. “So we see our data also fitting into the state of Michigan’s goals toward trying to understand your exposure levels to various pollutants, and microplastics are another pollutant that is far understudied.”

Meeting the Mnomen: restoration of wild rice populations for environmental and social justice

Selena Smith, Kerstin Barndt, Nathan Sheldon, Tony Kolenic, David Michener, Michael Kost and Roger LaBine

This “Vital Impact” project will work to restore the wild rice population in Willow Pond in the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Wild rice, or mnomen, is native to the area and of cultural significance to the Anishinaabeg, whose indigenous land is occupied by the University. 

Selena Smith, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, said this project will take a unique approach to understanding environmental justice and conservation. 

“Today, we’re seeing a lot of issues surrounding environmental and climate change, and these are very pressing issues, but they’re also issues that unequally impact different kinds of people within our society and are intimately linked with issues like racism and socio-economic status and geographic areas,” Smith said. “Our project is looking at different approaches to these linked threats of racism and environmental justice with climate and land-use change issues. And it comes from the premise that in order to address these kinds of challenges, we need to recognize and better value different ways of knowing outside of the traditional white, Eurocentric, westernized epistemologies.” 

Smith said the team will begin by monitoring the water chemistry, vegetation and sediment of Willow Pond to have a baseline picture of the conditions of the location. After planting the rice, the team will monitor the growth and its impact on the pond ecosystem using the same metrics as the baseline measurement. 

Nathan Sheldon, professor of earth and environmental sciences, said in addition to their focus on present-day conditions for planting wild rice, the team will also be analyzing historical patterns in the pond’s chemistry. 

“Because we’re trying to look at the viability of going back to a pre-colonial potential here, we’re also going to take some cores that go down through the sediments, and that’ll allow us basically to go back in time as we go from the top down,” Sheldon said. “So the idea will be, hopefully, that we’ll be able to see not just whether the chemistry is what it needs to be today, but also what it looked like in the past, and we can figure out how things change.”

Smith said this project will not only restore an important native plant but also work towards a deeper understanding of the social and cultural aspects of wild rice. 

“It’s a plant that’s been severely impacted in the Great Lakes region,” Smith said. “It used to be really widespread, but industry, pollution, dams, land-use change and the removal of the Anishinaabeg from their traditional lands has resulted in a big loss … It’s returning this plant to where it used to grow before these impacts, but then it’s also addressing issues of food security and maintaining cultural traditions and a culturally important plant to the native people of Michigan.”

Balancing water needs amidst climate change: Mono Lake as a case study for communities and watersheds in the U.S.

Naomi Levin, Benjamin Passey, Andrew Gronewold and Arya Harp

In collaboration with the Mono Lake Committee, this “Vital Impact” project aims to use Mono Lake in California to understand how to balance the needs of urban communities with ecological conservation. 

Naomi Levin, associate professor of earth and environmental science, said the worsening impacts of climate change make this project’s work and the communication of its results particularly urgent.

“There’s a lot of urgency in climate change in terms of affecting many different ecosystems (and) many different ways that we interact with our earth systems,” Levin said. “In Mono Lake in particular, the lake levels are dropping and staying low. They’re 12 feet below what they should be. And basically, every year that we don’t understand fully the lake level, and every year that we’re not communicating as well as we can about the lake level to the public, there are more and more risks associated with the impacts.”

Levin said the team will be using a three-part approach to modeling and examining Mono Lake. According to Levin, the team will first create a new hydrological model of the lake to better understand its features and behavior. Levin said they will also be working to understand the historical trends of how the lake’s levels fluctuated in the years before it was officially measured by examining isotope ratios from the lake sediment. Using the new model and extended historical record, the team hopes to create predictions of what will happen to the lake’s levels in the future from the continued effects of climate change and human use. 

Arya Harp, communications director for the Mono Lake Committee, said this project will be a critical step in advancing public communication and awareness about the lake. 

Beginning in 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) began diverting water from Mono Lake tributary systems to meet the growing water demands of Los Angeles. As a result, Mono Lake dropped by 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume and doubled in salinity over the next 40 years.

“The state of California had a decision to save Mono Lake about 28 years ago,” Harp said. “Yet, the lake is still critically low, so it has not met its mandated healthy water level. And especially in a time of climate change, we need the lake to get back up to that level. People really want to make that happen. But we need more science in order to figure out exactly how we’re going to be able to do that most effectively and efficiently.”

All of the selected projects plan to begin research between July 1 and September 1 of this year. 

Summer News Editor Samantha Rich can be reached at