Category Archives: News

6 things we learned about managing pandemic threatsFlickr: Photo by Matthew Anderson (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The April 15 Frontiers looked at ways we can manage disease threats at home and abroad. Thanks to a diverse panel including Patsy Stinchfield, director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota; Cheryl Robertson, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, and John Deen, a professor of Veterinary Population Medicine, here are six things we learned:

1. The nature of infectious diseases. In 2014, Ebola made headlines around the world, bringing fear and uncertainty with it. Prior to this, the disease had primarily occurred in rural areas with little contact with other communities, and so was relatively contained. But as Ebola started to make its way into larger cities and cross international boundaries, it sparked new conversations about how to manage the uncertainties and left many feeling unprepared. And, while Ebola may be the most notorious infectious disease right now, it is not the only one we need to worry about. The speakers also addressed measles, and the often-underrated influenza.

2. Prevention is better than reaction. As the Ebola crisis grew, the United States scrambled to prepare, often while facing serious public criticism. Stinchfield discussed how the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota took steps to become one of the most prepared hospitals in the country by simulating labs, learning how to handle waste and spending time making sure staff felt comfortable about their own personal protection. While the hospital hasn’t had to deal with a real Ebola case, the preparation did come in handy during a couple of potential cases. It also opened up conversations about preparing for the next outbreak.

3. The war on infectious diseases. Part of the problem is not the disease itself, but our ability to respond to it. Many countries that suffer the most are dealing with difficult social and cultural problems. Robertson, who has spent time in Liberia and a significant portion of her career addressing public health in conflict situations, compares the damage of infectious diseases to that of a war zone. Having the capacity to be completely prepared for these situations requires access to tangible resources as well as to intangible resources such as education. It’s hard to build a resilient health care system when professionals are leaving areas for their own safety and schools are closing. Moving forward, we need to think about the varied challenges that come with handling infectious diseases around the world.

4. It’s a learning process. While we’ve made strides in learning about infectious diseases and how to treat them, there is room for improvement. In 1989 and 1990, the United States struggled with a measles resurgence. At that time, it was practice to administer only one dose of vaccine, but researchers realized that this left 5 percent of the population vulnerable. Now medical professionals administer two doses of the vaccine, helping to raise the success of the vaccine to 99 percent. Such continued discovery will be important as the changing global landscape changes our interactions with diseases.

5. We are victims of our own success. Vaccines have been so successful that we’ve started to become desensitized to their impact. No longer having to see the direct impacts and physical manifestations of the diseases, we’ve lost the fear associated with them. Now the fear of the vaccine has begun exceeded the fear of the disease itself. As Deen pointed out, we almost need some level of fear of the diseases in order to remind ourselves to act.

We are one global community. One of the most important things to remember is that we’re all connected and we need to think on a global scale. Prevention in one part of the world helps prevent problems in other parts. To solve big problems, we also need solutions from across communities, nations and disciplines. This thinking can apply beyond infectious diseases and could be one way to approach our current environmental challenges too.

Photo by Matthew Anderson (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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? 


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)

RCP recognized for excellence, innovationPhoto by Patrick O'Leary

The Resilient Communities Project has been selected as the 2015 recipient of the MAGS/ETS Excellence and Innovation in Graduate Education Award. Jointly sponsored by the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) and Educational Testing Service (ETS), this annual award is given to a MAGS member institution in recognition of outstanding contributions to domestic and international graduate education at both the graduate school and program level.

RCP, an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Institute on the Environment, organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities.

RCP was nominated for the award by Henning Schroeder, dean of the University’s Graduate School. Schroeder commended the program as “a shining example of the great things our faculty, students and staff can achieve when disciplinary boundaries disappear” and possibly “the gold standard for advancing community sustainability practices while incorporating community engagement into the fabric of any university.”

“The Resilient Communities Project is a model for promoting greater collaboration and engagement across disciplines,” added Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Karen Hanson in a letter supporting the nomination. “[RCP’s] innovative approach not only provides sustainability solutions for our partner communities but also enhances our curriculum with interdisciplinary methods that are helping our students to develop the knowledge, skills and agility that they will need as tomorrow’s innovators, lifelong learners and global citizens.”

RCP will receive the award at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools on April 16 in St. Louis. The award includes a certificate and a $2,500 prize that will be used to support the RCP program.

Past recipients of the MAGS/ETS Excellence and Innovation in Graduate Education Award include Miami University’s Dublin School Leadership Program (2014), Loyola University Chicago’s Mastering The Humanities: Growing, Diversifying, and Sustaining Humanities Education program (2013), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Transforming the Illinois Graduate Education Pathway program (2012).

Photo by Patrick O’Leary (U of M Photo Library)

8 things we learned about health and wildlife tradeFlickr: Photo by Craig ONeal (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Combine cutting-edge University of Minnesota research and heightened interest in infectious disease due to recent ebola outbreaks, and you get a fascinating discussion on wildlife and the ways it may influence global health. At this week’s Frontiers in the Environment, Dominic Travis, IonE resident fellow and associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; Shaun Kennedy, director of the Food Systems Institute and adjunct professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine; and Kristine Smith, associate director of health and policy with EcoHealth Alliance explored the health risks associated with the global wildlife trade. Here are eight things we learned: Continue reading

Featured Fellow: Civil engineer John GulliverPhoto by Chris Lester (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 John Gulliver, civil engineer at St. Anthony Falls Laboratory. Let the conversation begin!

What environmental challenge concerns you most?

Population control. We are overpopulating and exploiting the Earth and these are at the root of all environmental problems. I do not know how many people a sustainable world can support, but I suspect that it is less than a population of 9 billion. Continue reading

7 things we learned about social media & environmentFlickr: Photo by Kris Olin (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This week Brent Hecht, an assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering, and Spencer Wood, senior scientist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, joined Frontiers in the Environment to discuss how social media can be used to inform the causes and consequences of environmental change. Here are seven things we learned:

1. We’ve entered a new era of data. The explosion of social media has created an abundance of data not previously available. Geotagged information (the inclusion of geographical information on forms media, such as marking your location in a Tweet) from social media is one way to harness these data in a useful way. Using the combination of location information in conjunction with the information included in the post, researchers can gleam new insights. Continue reading

We need system change, not regulationPhoto © franckreporter

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

The higher levels of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels are one feature of what many call the Anthropocene, a new geological era dominated by humans.

Yet regulatory approaches to managing carbon in the Earth system are doomed to fail. This is because the rise of carbon dioxide levels — what I call the CO Catastrophe — is taking place at the scale of the Earth system itself. Humans are inside of that system, COemissions are coupled to energy use, and increasing energy use is central to economic advancement. I have become convinced that it is simply not possible to manage energy usage from the scale of households to that of the planet itself using regulatory methods. Continue reading

Carver County is new RCP partnerPhoto by Ann Wiechmann (Flickr Creative Commons)

Carver County, one of seven counties in the Twin Cities metro, has been chosen as the 2015–16 Resilient Communities Project partner. Enhancing bike and pedestrian facilities near park-and-ride locations, evaluating stormwater reuse opportunities, crafting an ecotourism marketing plan and exploring opportunities for preservation of a historic farmstead are among the 34 projects the county will tackle with help from University of Minnesota sustainability expertise.

RCP organizes yearlong partnerships between the University and Minnesota communities. The partnership will bring the expertise of hundreds of graduate students to sustainability-related projects identified by Carver County staff and community partners.

“We’re very excited about our upcoming partnership with Carver County,” said RCP director and Humphrey School of Public Affairs associate professor Carissa Schively Slotterback in a press release. “The enthusiasm of staff from the county and its partner cities and organizations as well as their clear commitment to advancing sustainability and resilience will ensure a productive and enjoyable collaboration that will benefit Carver County and provide community-engaged learning opportunities for University of Minnesota students.”

Carver County will be the fourth RCP partner in as many years. Previous partners have been the City of Minnetonka, North St. Paul and Rosemount.

The Resilient Communities Project is an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota, with funding and administrative support provided by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and the Institute on the Environment.

Read the full press release

Photo by Ann Wiechmann (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

Uncovering the impacts of oil palmBanner photo by CIFOR (Flickr Creative Commons)

This profile originally appeared in the Union of Concerned Scientists Science Network.

While studying oil palm plantation expansion in Indonesian Borneo as part of her Ph.D. work at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Institute on the Environment postdoctoral scholar Kimberly Carlson witnessed how growing global demand, coupled with poor forest governance, resulted in rapid loss of tropical forests. Led by her adviser Lisa Curran and collaborating with the Indonesian non-governmental organization Living Landscapes Indonesia, Carlson has helped uncover the impacts of oil palm development on forest loss, carbon emissions and stream water quality. She finished her Ph.D. wishing not only to document the dynamics and effects of agricultural land use change, but also to design studies that directly inform tropical land use policy. 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

7 things we learned about government & environmentFlickr: Photo by Mahinda Rajapaksa (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Passage of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the early 1970s were clear public policy wins for the environmental movement. But are we still able to make progress through government action in the same way we did 40 years ago? Eric Lind, a postdoctoral associate in the College of Biological Sciences, was curious about what “successful” government action on the environment looks like today, so he asked three professionals to share their experience in this week’s Frontiers on the Environment. Kate Knuth, Boreas Leadership Program director, spoke of her experience as a Minnesota state representative, followed by Julia Frost Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, and Jessica Tritsch, senior organizing representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign. Here are seven things we learned: Continue reading

5 things we learned about groundwaterFlickr: Photo by Benjamin Jakabek (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This week’s Frontiers talk featured Kate Brauman, lead scientist with IonE’s Global Water Initiative, and a panel of experts providing perspectives on the current state of groundwater resources. Joining her was Perry Jones, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey; Steve Polasky, IonE resident fellow, The Natural Capital Project lead, and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; and Sherry Enzler, general counsel for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Here are five things we learned: Continue reading

Student start-ups win 2015 Acara ChallengeAcara Challenge participants explain their projects to attendees during an afternoon poster session. Photo by  Brittney LaFond.

Student-run impact ventures focused on solar-powered microgrids for rural India and environmentally friendly feminine hygiene products have been selected Gold Level winners of the 2015 Acara Challenge, a competition held by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in partnership with the College of Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of Management. The top-level teams and other awardees will have the opportunity and resources to further develop their innovative business solutions for environmental and social challenges. Continue reading

10 things we learned about sustainability & happinessFlickr: Photo by Andreas Klinke Johannsen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Along with being one of the happiest nations in the world, Denmark is known for being one of the most environmentally friendly. Which raises the question: Is a happy society a more sustainable one? After spending time in the country for a course last summer, Sustainability Education coordinator Beth Mercer-Taylor; Mallory Thomas, an evolution and behavior student in the College of Biological Sciences; and Stephanie Claybrook, an art student in the College of Liberal Arts, put together 10 pillars of Danish happiness. Can we use these tools to work towards sustainability at home?

1. Social security. Compared to the United States, the wealth gap of Denmark is very small. This may be due to the fact that Denmark boasts one of the highest income taxes in world, about 60 percent. In return, its residents receive security, flexibility and unemployment benefits. 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