Category Archives: IonE Resident Fellow

Featured Fellow: Environmental Educator Patrick HamiltonPhoto by Arend (Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Patrick Hamilton, program director of Global Change Initiatives at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Let the conversation begin!

What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

The realization a number of years ago than humanity now dominates many of the chemical, physical and biological processes that make this world habitable, while at the same time the planet is now home to the healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, and most innovative, creative and connected populace in history. The future of Earth will be determined by human decision making, either by default or by design, by accident or by intention.

Hamilton head shot 3
Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and program director for the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives. Photo courtesy of P. Hamilton.

What is your current favorite project?

I am passionate about several new projects that I am pursuing. The Observatory will be a new exhibit for long-term display at the Science Museum of Minnesota that will provide visitors with novel opportunities by which to examine the world around them and in so doing collect scientific observations that help protect and enhance Minnesota’s environment. The Exergy Project seeks to use the museum itself as a model of advanced building energy efficiency to demonstrate how large commercial, institutional and industrial buildings could cost-effectively and substantially reduce their energy consumption. The Great Cities Initiative seeks to develop a major new exhibit for tour around the U.S. about the past, present and future of cities.

What gives you hope?

The accelerating pace of innovation of all kinds, which defies the contention by skeptics that addressing humanity’s many global environmental challenges are beyond our collective wherewithal.

What’s the strangest thing that has happened to you?  

I had the opportunity in January 2009 to be a member of a University of Minnesota research expedition to the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica — one of the coldest, driest, windiest places on the planet. Camping for nearly two weeks in a landscape completely devoid of visible life was a daily poignant reminder of how verdant and precious the rest of our planet is. Earth is an oasis in space.

What’s the one personality trait you rely on most often? 

Perseverance.

Banner photo: Arend (Flickr Creative Commons)

Bacteria tapped for water clean-upPhoto © BartCo (iStock)

This article was written by Kevin Coss and originally published in Inquiry.

Water plays a crucial role in industry. It helps us generate electricity and mine for precious minerals, and supports numerous other functions that fuel the economy and provide society with the products and services essential to everyday life.

During industrial use, however, water is sometimes contaminated by one of over 100,000 chemicals used commercially. If these chemicals are untreated, they can pollute the environment and create health risks for humans and animals. Industry leaders are continually seeking smart, cost-efficient ways to clean up after themselves and minimize their company’s environmental impact.

Now, a collection of scientists and business experts at the University of Minnesota are developing new methods of remediation — the act of removing pollutants from the environment. The researchers are developing software that models how enzymes break down chemicals at the microscopic level to optimize the selection of bacteria that biodegrade those chemicals. Meanwhile, business experts are conducting market research to discover the best ways to apply this new knowledge and learn how it can lead to viable industrial processes and products.

The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

“Predicting how bacteria and chemicals will interact has historically been very challenging,” says Larry Wackett, professor with the U’s BioTechnology Institute, Institute on the Environment resident fellow and lead researcher on the project. “For the first time, RAPID, a novel software program, will use established biological principles to generate models that show how millions of chemicals can be optimally biodegraded. This idea has enormous potential for the world of bioremediation.”

Scientists have long known that microbes naturally found in water and soil will “eat” certain chemicals. Some companies place water that has been used in industrial processes into manmade ponds or large metal tanks which contain the appropriate type of bacteria to eat the contaminants in the water. But in many cases, the natural biodegradation processes do not work or they work too slowly.

That’s where Wackett and his team come in. Wackett and coworkers are developing an algorithm he calls the “Google of bioremediation.” RAPID, short for Reactive Activity Product IDentification, is designed to allow users, such as chemical developers or companies that produce industrial waste, to type in a particular chemical and quickly receive information on which species of bacteria are likely to break down that chemical. The system stems from the established U of M–designed Biocatalysis/Biodegradation Database, which shows the stages molecules go through as they break down.

Using the bacteria recommended by the system, scientists will be able to develop tests that quickly and accurately detect harmful chemicals, along with treatments that remove those chemicals from water. They will also be able to run a new chemical product through the system to see what bacteria and enzymes biodegrade it, allowing industry to develop safer, more environmentally friendly products. A chemical company could run a new herbicide through the system, for example, to see if it leaves behind any byproducts that are hazardous to humans or animals.

One example of bacterial remediation that has been successful is a process called “activated sludge,” used in municipal water treatment plants to clean up water that eventually will be processed for drinking. The procedure uses a collection of bacteria to filter out a wide range of impurities, including agricultural runoff, chemicals from personal care products like shampoo and organic matter from plants and animals to make the water safe for consumption. Outside of engineered water treatment systems, bacteria are also helping to retroactively clean up chemicals previously thought innocuous that now threaten to contaminate groundwater.

Finding the Niche for Breakthrough Treatments

While Wackett works on refining the hard science behind the RAPID system, a business team is exploring different approaches to marketing that knowledge.

Tobin Nord, professional director of the Ventures Enterprise at the Carlson School of Management, guides MBA students as they work with departments across the University to figure out how to commercialize new knowledge. Working with the scientific groups headed by professors Wackett, Alptekin Aksan, Mikael Elias, Carl Rosen and Carrie Wilmot, Nord’s team is pinpointing the remediation solutions most likely to succeed in the market and developing plans to launch technology based on them.

“Even the most innovative technology can’t reach its full potential if there isn’t someone willing to pay for it,” Nord says. “Our goal is to understand where environmental conservation and business needs intersect, and cater to those opportunities with research-based solutions.”

To find the best opportunities for commercialization, Nord’s team is assessing which individual chemicals hold the largest market potential. Their process for evaluating chemicals — both those known and those as-of-yet undiscovered — takes into account how widespread a problem it is, the effectiveness of any treatment methods that already exist and who would be likely to invest in cleaning it up. Each chemical is different; in some cases, an existing method can remove it at a reasonable cost, while in others, current industry practices are expensive and inefficient.

As an alternative, Nord’s team will also examine whether the RAPID technology would be best used as a consulting service for industry. Under that model, companies would come to the university with a specific chemical they want to treat, and the RAPID system would help researchers determine what type of bacteria and treatment system is optimum for their purposes.

Collaborating on Conservation

To take on a problem as complex as chemical contamination, Wackett and Nord are working with researchers from across academic disciplines. Aleptekin Aksan, Ph.D., mechanical engineering professor with the College of Science and Engineering and the BioTechnology Institute, is researching ways to scale up production of silica spheres — a sponge-like type of sand that can trap bacteria in place while contaminated water flows through, helping ensure bacteria evenly remove chemicals from the water.

Also working on the project are Mikael Elias and Carrie Wilmot both professors in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics in the College of Biological Sciences and members of the BioTechnology Institute. Elias is studying how bacteria evolve to eat certain chemicals, while Wilmot is using X-ray crystallography to study the structure and function of the enzymes that bacteria use to break down industrial chemicals.

Meanwhile, Carl Rosen, professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate in the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, will identify which chemicals are most likely to contaminate the food supply. Through his research, Rosen will help researchers develop products that food producers and consumers alike can use to test food, which can help cut down on foodborne illness and eliminate the need to discard healthy food out of precaution.

“This is the spirit of MnDRIVE,” Wackett says. “We are connecting researchers from across the University and forming new partnerships with industry to tackle a host of real-world problems.”

This project is supported by MnDRIVE, a landmark partnership between the University and the state of Minnesota that aligns areas of University strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to advance new discoveries that address grand challenges.

Photo © BartCo (iStock)

Energy Transition Lab promotes 21st century upgradesPhoto by mwwile (Flicker Creative Commons)

The Energy Transition Lab, supported by the Institute on the Environment, the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Law School, brings together leaders in government, business and nonprofit organizations to develop new energy policy pathways, institutions and regulations.

In this audio clip, Hari Osofsky, ETL’s faculty director, Law School professor and IonE resident fellow, discusses the lab’s goals and what communities and business and utility partners are doing to bring the energy system into the 21st century with WTIP North Shore Community Radio.

Photo by mwwile (Flickr Creative Commons)

5 things we learned about advanced heat recoveryFlickr: Photo by Bryan Kennedy (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Buildings are huge parts of our lives, yet we rarely think about what it takes to keep them running. This week, Frontiers took a look at advanced heat recovery, one a way to improve building energy efficiency. Leading the discussion was Patrick Hamilton, IonE resident fellow and director of the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Global Change Initiatives. Panelists were Scott Getty, energy project manager for Metropolitan Council Environmental Services; Katie Gulley, regional program manager with the BlueGreen Alliance; and Peter Klein, vice president of finance for the Saint Paul Port Authority. Here are five things we learned: Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Dendrochronologist Scott St. GeorgePhoto by Landahlauts (Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Scott St. George, assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

I’m working with colleagues at Cornell University to understand how and why the environmental “stories” recorded by trees differ from place to place. Every year, trees in Minnesota and other parts of the world with strongly seasonal climates form a new layer of wood around their stem. That layer of wood — a tree ring — is very clear evidence of the passing of time and records, indirectly, the immediate environment of that tree. Over the last several decades scientists have collected tree-ring records from hundreds of thousands of trees around the planet. A tree ring may be a very simple thing, but reading millions of them at the same time might tell us a great deal about the environmental past (and perhaps future) of our planet. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Ecologist Jeannine Cavender-BaresBanner photo by Nate Hughes (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

How does your work align with the mission of IonE?

All of my projects focus on various aspects of biodiversity — origins, monitoring biodiversity remotely, links in biodiversity between trophic levels, patterns of biodiversity in urban areas, the value of biodiversity to humans. Most relevant to IonE’s mission, perhaps, is the SESYNC (Socio Environmental SYNthesis Center) working group I am leading with Steve Polasky on the ecosystem services that plant species around the globe provide. A component of this project involves putting a partial monetary value on a species, which is obviously very controversial. Continue reading

4 things we learned about the human–environment bondevents_frontiers_feb_18_2

In the second of this semester’s Frontiers in the Environment talks, IonE resident fellow Jonee Kulman Brigham, a visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development and Sustainable Design Program faculty member in the College of Design, taught us to question our relationship with natural resources and suggested ways we could rebuild our bond with the environment. Here are four things we learned:

Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Disease ecologist Meggan CraftPhoto © twildlife (iStock)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Meggan Craft, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Let the conversation begin!

What pivotal moment led you to the work you’re doing today?

A study abroad experience my junior year of college. I spent a semester in Kenya studying wildlife management at The School for Field Studies. I was a biology major trying to decide between becoming a doctor or a vet. That experience made me realize that wildlife research was another option. And my current job is awesome ‘cause I get to work with vets! Continue reading

A course of a different colorImage © wildpixel (iStock)

Each spring semester since 2011, scholars from places as diverse as Mexico, Brazil, Arizona and Minnesota have met in a virtual classroom. They hail from many disciplines and represent diverse cultural perspectives. Despite their differences, they convene under a common goal: the study of sustainability science.

This unique course, known as the Sustainability Science Distributed Graduate Seminar, focuses on core theories of sustainability science, an emerging field of problem-driven research dealing with interactions between humans and the environment, says Jeannine Cavender-Bares, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. With support from the Institute on the Environment, Cavender-Bares and Steve Polasky, Regents Professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and a director of IonE’s Natural Capital Project, developed the course four years ago when they recognized that a diverse body of research would need to be integrated to meet the challenge of improving the well-being of future generations while conserving the planet’s life support systems over the long term. They have been teaching it ever since, bringing together faculty and graduate students from different disciplines,  universities, and cultures to discuss key concepts and controversies in the field, drawing upon research from earth systems science, resource economics, institutional analysis, ecology, evolutionary biology, geography, development studies and engineering. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Environmental engineer William Arnoldnews_BillArnold_main

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow William Arnold, professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What is the current focus of your work?

My team in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo- Engineering is studying how human impacts on the composition of organic matter in natural waters — due to wastewater, stormwater or agricultural runoff — affect the solar-driven reactivity with various contaminants, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals. We are trying to understand how the molecular structure and properties of organic matter influence the production of highly reactive intermediates (such as the hydroxyl radical) that are important in the destruction of contaminants. The ultimate goal is to be able to predict how fast various contaminants will degrade in different impacted waters and to design treatment systems that take advantage of sunlight-driven reaction processes. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Geographer Steven Mansonnews_StevenManson_main

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Steven Manson, associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

While I believe sustaining humanity in the face of gradual climate change is probably the biggest challenge we face overall, I am particularly concerned about the potential for rapid shifts in climate-related systems that catch us by surprise. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Landscape ecologist Laura MusacchioPhoto by Ryan Blyth (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Laura Musacchio, associate professor in the College of Design. Let the conversation begin!

How does your work fit into the transdisciplinary framework of IonE?

With my IonE resident fellowship, I am working on how to enhance theory-to-practice integration of landscape stewardship and ecosystem services. There is a vast storehouse of academic knowledge that is waiting to be translated to real-world problems in professional practice. It is a key opportunity to enhance knowledge and action across the numerous disciplines at universities. However, one of the challenges is the multiple steps needed to decode the language of scientific research into the language of professional application and then back again.

Continue reading

Inquiry’s top 10 overflows with IonE folksPhoto © Robert Churchill (iStock)

What a year! Of the University of Minnesota Office of the Vice President’s Top 10 Inquiry stories of 2014, six feature IonE-related people and projects.

At number 10, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering and IonE resident fellow Jian-Ping Wang’s disease-detecting device is a noted example in “How to create a successful start-up – a university’s perspective.” Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Chemist Marc HillmyerPhoto by Shaun Amey (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Marc Hillmyer, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Nonrenewable plastics that contribute to land and water pollution. And the global water crisis. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Fungal biologist Jonathan SchillingBasidiomycete fungi. Photo by Jonathan Schilling

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Jonathan Schilling, associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

How does IonE facilitate your work?

My IonE resident fellowship has focused on applying the tools from one area of my work (microbial biotechnology) to another area where I think they are useful (forest ecology). I study mechanisms of plant decomposition, particularly among fungi. Exploring the potential to apply these mechanisms to deconstruct plant biomass industrially has been a significant effort in my lab group since our first Department of Energy grant in 2007. These efforts have been fruitful, as planned, but I have learned that the same methods have impressive traction beyond the targets I’ve laid out in my proposals. This cross-pollination is efficient, it is fun, and it wouldn’t happen without collaborative spaces like IonE. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Computer scientist Shashi Shekhar© elenaleonova

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Shashi Shekhar, McKnight Distinguished University Professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Let the conversation begin!

What pivotal experience led you to the work you’re doing today?

It is hard to believe that paper maps were used for routing and navigation until the early 1990s, when we worked on research projects exploring spatial computational questions underlying envisaged handheld and in-vehicle GPS-based navigation devices. It was challenging since large road maps challenged the conventional wisdom that “640K (bytes of computer memory) ought to be enough for anyone.” Today, GPS-based navigation apps are commonplace and have transformed our society. They have also reduced fuel waste — and related greenhouse gas emissions — due to fewer drivers getting lost in unfamiliar areas.

This experience has strengthened my interest in potentially transformative research by envisioning better futures for our society and taking the first steps toward that by exploring promising approaches. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Engineer Matteo ConvertinoPhoto by Michael Foley (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Matteo Convertino, assistant professor in the School of Public Health. Let the conversation begin!

What is your current favorite project?

I would say that the food system project I am involved in is very interesting because it integrates agriculture, public health, veterinary medicine and ecology via engineering models for understanding how foodborne outbreaks and other food-related emerging infectious diseases arise globally. The ultimate goal is to provide a tool for the food industry and public health authorities for designing food supply chains that diminish the risk of foodborne outbreaks, and for building surveillance systems that detect early signs of contamination and enable more rapid response to incipient outbreaks. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Architect/artist Jonee Kulman BrighamPhoto by Teresa Boardman (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Over the course of the next year, this series will introduce our diverse resident fellows in their own words. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Jonee Kulman Brigham, a sustainable design program faculty member in the College of  Design and visiting scholar in the College of Education and Human Development. Let the conversation begin!

Which of your projects relates to the transdisciplinary mission of IonE?

Through my fellowship at IonE, I’m working on a project called “River Journey: Exploring the Value of the Mississippi.” This project is taking place at River’s Edge Academy Charter Environmental High School, where I am collaborating with teachers, staff and students on a yearlong art-led environmental exploration of water through their school, tracing the flows to the Mississippi River both upstream and downstream. With the assistance of project partner U-Spatial, students will use online mapping software (ArcGIS online) to share their learning about the water cycle and increase public awareness. Community contributors include the National Park Service, St. Paul Regional Water Services, Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, the Lower Mississippi River Watershed Management Organization and others. You can read more about it on the River Journey blog. Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Biochemist Lawrence WackettPhoto by Mickey Zlimen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: IonE’s nearly 70 resident fellows — faculty with appointments throughout the University of Minnesota system who come together here to share ideas, inspiration and innovation across disciplinary boundaries — are among the shining stars of IonE’s signature approach to addressing global grand challenges. Here we interview IonE resident fellow Lawrence Wackett, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Let the conversation begin!

What project are you focused on now?

I am working on developing broad-based computer and practical methods for cleaning problem chemicals from the environment and setting up conditions whereby there is a business incentive to use the methods. The latter goal is typically outside the domain of academic research. But to really make an impact on the environment, I have come to believe we must go beyond publishing journal articles and op-ed pieces for people to read. It takes enormous creativity to think of environmental solutions that many people will be incentivized to implement. However, lasting environmental benefits will only accrue when business and the majority of citizens are driven by self-interest to eagerly adopt environmentally responsible practices. The carrot is more powerful than the stick! Continue reading