SUSTAINABLE GROWTH

By Liz Ivkovich, Global Change & Sustainability Center

Water uptake in plants, the neurocognitive underpinnings of certain personality traits and food as a cultural process. How are these starkly different areas connected?

Each topic relates to environmental change. And each topic is the thrust of a new interdisciplinary research collaboration. These projects and six others have received funding through the Global Change & Sustainability Center (GCSC) and the Society, Water, & Climate Research Group’s (SWC) new seed grant initiative.

“The GCSC is thrilled that we were able to partner with SWC to support interdisciplinary faculty seed grants to help catalyze new collaborations between U faculty from different disciplines as they pursue sustainability research,” said Brenda Bowen, director of the center. “These grants were specifically targeted to help bring new faculty into existing interdisciplinary projects and to facilitate new research that will lead to future external funding opportunities.”

In total, $132,000 in grant funds has been awarded to nine different collaborations.

Funded projects include research being pursued by faculty from anthropology, atmospheric sciences, biology, cognition and neural science, environmental and sustainability studies, environmental humanities, family and consumer studies, geography, geology and geophysics, law, neuroradiology, pediatrics, psychology and sociology.

Here are three examples of funded research:

  1. For the project, “Leveraging the Wasatch Environmental Observatory to Improve Prediction of Western U.S. Forest Carbon and Water Cycling,” investigators will gather data about how plants take in water and use it to build better models for predicting how Intermountain forests will change in the future.Utah’s mountain forests provide highly valuable ecosystem goods and services to local communities, including timber, tourism and recreation, water purification, and carbon sequestration. These forests fundamentally affect carbon and water cycling, thus influencing water resources upon which Utah’s communities and economy rely. Climate change is projected to increase stress on mountain forests through more frequent and severe droughts, more and larger wildfires and other disturbances like insect outbreaks. The complicated scale of these changes requires new kinds of models that can predict the future of U.S. forests.One fundamental data gap currently limits researchers’ ability to develop rigorous models for ecosystems in the Wasatch Mountains. Data required to model drought stress in mountainous forests, such as the plant traits that comprise water transport via xylem, are not yet available. Through this funding, the team will be able to begin collecting these data.Researchers on this project include William Anderegg, biology; Paul Brooks, geology and geophysics; John Lin, atmospheric sciences; and David Bowling, biology.
  1. In a project entitled “Individual Differences in Environmental Attitudes and Behavior: Examination of Personality, Neurocognitive Mechanisms, and Malleability,” faculty investigators will explore the neurocognitive underpinnings of the personality trait “openness to experience.” Openness to Experience — the breadth, depth and permeability of consciousness, and the recurrent need to enlarge and engage experience — is the personality factor most consistently associated with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Behaviors associated with this trait include reducing emissions to address climate change, belief in human behavior-driven climate change and a sense of connection to humanity and nature.There has been scant research examining the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying pro-environmental attitudes and behavior. Understanding this personality trait may inform how programs and policies can be tailored to create social change in environmental attitudes and behavior. The team will also examine the extent to which environmental attitudes and behaviors can be changed through exposure to nature/aesthetic experiences.Faculty investigators on this project are Paula Williams, psychology; Jeff Anderson, neuroradiology; Jeanine Stefanucci, cognition and neural science; Yana Suchy, neuropsychology; David Strayer, cognition and neural science.
  1. The project, “Exploring Indigenous Lifestyles for Justice, Sustainability, and Health: Native Food Knowledge and Practice,” will explore the livelihoods of Great-Basin Shoshone tribal members and evaluate whether participation in traditional diets and land management and use of native language are correlated with positive health outcomes.With the loss of indigenous languages comes the loss of traditional cultural practices. This project is unique in that while much traditional knowledge has disappeared with the loss of language, the traditional knowledge of the Shoshone community partners exists in untranslated ethnographic data in the University of Utah’s possession. While many health interventions in local indigenous communities are based in Westernized approaches to health, including a focus on exercise and nutrient consumption, this research team, including tribal partners, share the perspective that food and health are cultural processes and products. They are committed to working toward increased food sovereignty — the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.Researchers on this project include Adrienne Cachelin, environmental and sustainability studies; Brian Codding, anthropology; Lillian Tom-Orme, epidemiology; and Marianna Di Paolo, anthropology

“These kinds of interdisciplinary research endeavors are crucial to addressing today’s urgent social and environmental challenges,” said Andrea Brunelle, chair of the Society, Water, & Climate Research Group executive committee. “The diverse range of projects supported by the seed grants is a testament to the importance of multiple perspectives on climate, society and water. The work doesn’t stop with these grants. Through other ongoing collaborations between GCSC and SWC, as well as with partners such as Red Butte Garden, we will continue to support this relevant research.”

The seed grants were awarded through a competitive interdisciplinary peer-review process that considered impact of the research in terms of new publications and future external grant funding. Funding for some projects was supplemented with financial support from Red Butte Garden specifically aimed at supporting student and postdoctoral research linked to plants.