Grants from Graham Sustainability Institute funds collaborative research on sustainability

Tuesday, May 2, 2017 - 7:04pm

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On Friday, four University of Michigan research projects received almost $500,000 total in grant money from the Graham Sustainability Institute — an initiative that supports research and education at the University under the Office of the Provost. All four studies are related to sustainability and are funded by the Institute’s Emerging Opportunities Program, which provides funding for University research in sustainability and promotes cross-disciplinary collaboration with external partners.

In the Graham Institute’s announcement of the awards, University President Mark Schlissel said the projects are reflective of the University’s work in sustainability.

“These projects reflect an exceptional range of sustainability initiatives being led by U-M faculty in partnership with local and global partners,” he said. “I’m confident the results from these efforts will lead to meaningful and lasting impacts.”

The awards consisted of two types of grants: Transformation and Catalyst. The Transformation Grant — the larger of the two — is a three-year, $150,000-per-year opportunity. According to an informational slideshow on the Emerging Opportunities Program, it supports collaborative research and assessment projects and “projects with potential for significantly greater impact” than Catalyst Grants. Catalyst grants — four to six of which are awarded each year — support more short-term collaborative projects; studies that receive these grants are typically at an earlier stage of research.

John Callewaert, the director of the Emerging Opportunities Program, said the program aims to encourage collaboration between disciplines — those from the School of Public Health, the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Urban Planning Program, among others.

“We’re trying to leverage the breadth and depth of sustainability activity at the University,” he said. “In the request for proposals we put out, we say the team of researchers has to reflect at least two U of M units — (for example,) someone from Engineering and then someone from outside of Engineering … The reason for that is twofold. One is sustainability challenges are not just defined to one discipline… The other thing is there are few institutions like U of M that have the excellence across so many disciplines. What we’re doing is trying to do what we can to leverage that, bring that together and encourage it.”

Another element of the research projects, according to Callewaert, is they incorporate partners from outside the University.

Transformation grant

A project entitled “Leveraging existing data and insights into the policy process to accelerate progress toward achieving sustainable diets in the global south” received this year’s Transformation Grant.

In partnership with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture — a non-profit organization that works to improve farming techniques in developing countries — this study aims to analyze data on, and improve, sustainable diets in Kenya and Vietnam. According to the Michigan News, poor-quality diets underlie many diseases, while agricultural production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. In Kenya and Vietnam, almost a quarter of preschool-age children are stunted and the countries face increasing obesity.

Andrew Jones, John G. Searle Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences at the School of Public Health, is the project leader.

According to Jones, CIAT has committed to addressing sustainable food systems in Kenya and Vietnam. It is supported by the Agriculture for Nutrition and Health research program; both CIAT and A4NH are part of CGIAR — a global research partnership for sustainability.  

“They’re very much interested in understanding how to carry out research that looks at food systems and sustainability of food systems and also to develop, not just research for the sake of new knowledge, but also to put it into action and make sure it is applied for further human development goals,” he said.

Jones explained the researchers are looking at data on diets, nutrition of women and children and many aspects of food systems, such as environmental impacts of food and spatial data sets to help understand distribution of different aspects of food systems.

“We’re trying to bring together currently-available data to understand where the gaps are in terms of what our knowledge is around food systems and sustainability of food systems and also to understand what are the information needs of key stakeholders in these countries — decision-makers, in particular, who are going to be making decisions around what our food systems will look like ten years from now, twenty years from now, thirty years for now, and how to make them sustainable,” he said.

LSA senior Selena Joarder is the president of FeelGood, a student organization that seeks a "sustainable end to extreme poverty," according to its website

In an email, Joarder noted the importance of the study's impact on policy.

"Sustainable food systems and sustainable diets promote environmental and individual health," she wrote. "However, much of a country’s food system has global ties, so sustainable food development becomes very political. Thus, policy consideration seems like a responsible approach to promote meaningful growth toward sustainable diets."

Catalyst grants

Additionally, three projects received Catalyst grants of $10,000 each.  

"Training in participatory methodology to investigate vulnerability and adaptive capacity to extreme climate events in northern coast of Ecuador” looks at unpredictable flooding patterns on the coast of Ecuador, which damage the social stability of communities. It aims to facilitate prioritization and adaptation strategies to assist these areas.

University leaders of the project are Joseph Eisenberg, chair and professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, and Maria Carmen Lemos, the associate dean for research and a professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Workshop to advance climate adaptation initiatives for indigenous tribes within the Great Lakes region,” works in collaboration with the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan to assist Tribes in addressing extreme precipitation and climate change challenges.

The project is led by Frank Marsik, a lecturer and associate research science at Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, and Lemos.   

"Climate changes health: ensuring environmental justice underlies public health's climate change work" will prioritize the needs of marginalized communities affected by climate change, particularly with regard to public health.

Natalie Sampson, an assistant professor of Health at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the principal investigator of the project, wrote in an email interview public health professionals play an increasingly key role in identifying health implications of localized climate projections.

“The EPA documents various ways that marginalized populations may be at greater risk to climate’s health effects— from not having access to linguistically and culturally appropriate public health warnings to having less ability to relocate in emergency situations (EPA, 2016),” she wrote. “For example, in regard to extreme heat, it is well understood that those with pre-existing chronic conditions, poor access to transportation, low health literacy, and those living in older housing stock—factors all associated with low socioeconomic status—are particularly susceptible to adverse health effects...”

This project will also plan a summit at Spelman College that will consist of storytelling by environmental justice leaders, as well as lightning talks from community leaders and scholars. At the summit, researchers and environmental justice leaders will develop recommendations and create a white paper.