HomeNewsIonE investments take on lives of their own

IonE investments take on lives of their own

Children are the future, goes the familiar adage. Here at the Institute on the Environment, our projects are like our children. We invest in them with the expectation that their ideas and actions will change the world for the better.

“IonE’s mission of seeking solutions to grand environmental challenges spurs us to invest in innovative projects that will have major impacts,” says Lewis Gilbert, IonE managing director and chief operating officer. “The Resilient Communities Project, for example, is changing how we think about engaged teaching. We see our investments as catalysts for evolution at the U of M writ large.”

IonE has invested in many promising activities that have gone on to live independent lives of their own, supported through our funding vehicles, including Project Grants (formerly Discovery Grants), the Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment, and Mini Grants. Just like proud parents, IonE has nurtured the following programs and sent them out into the world to do good.

The Center for Sustainable Polymers

The mission of the Center for Sustainable Polymers is to create strong yet biodegradable plastic. To accomplish this work, CSP brings together researchers from diverse backgrounds and disciplines who collaborate on every step of the process, including chemistry, chemical engineering, polymer processing, metabolic engineering and materials science. CSP has received more than $200,000 in funding from IonE’s IREE grant program.

“I’m not sure we would have been successful without institutional support from IonE,” says CSP director Marc Hillmyer, an IonE fellow and professor in the College of Science and Engineering. Thanks in part to the IonE funding, CSP was able to secure a large grant from the National Science Foundation. “IonE’s investment allowed the center to start several research efforts, initiate new collaborations and develop center infrastructure. This allowed us to make a very strong case to the NSF for continued support,” Hillmyer says.

“Now the CSP is flourishing and has had several major discoveries since its inception. Moreover, We have initiated collaborations that have resulted in the integration of research in polymer, organic, biosynthetic, inorganic, computational and materials chemistry. The CSP approach to research is transforming how plastics are made and unmade, and CSP members are developing technologically competitive, environmentally friendly, cost-effective plastics from natural, sustainable and renewable materials,” says Hillmyer.

CSP also supports outreach and education programs. To reach the next generation of scientists and broaden participation of underrepresented minorities, CSP partners with groups such as 4-H, SciGirls and St. Paul Public Schools.

The Resilient Communities Project 

Each year, the Resilient Communities Project organizes yearlong partnerships that connect a Minnesota community with University of Minnesota expertise to tackle community-identified sustainability projects. The program was launched with a $30,000 IonE Discovery Grant. The following year, RCP partnered with the city of Minnetonka on 14 projects that engaged 25 classes and more than 200 students across eight colleges at the University. Student work helped the city advance initiatives to reduce phosphorus and sediment pollution in local lakes and rivers, evaluate and improve local housing assistance programs, plan for transit-oriented development around future light-rail stations, reduce traffic congestion, and increase engagement with local residents. Other partners include North St. Paul, Rosemount and Carver County.

“The IonE Discovery Grant in 2012 was instrumental in launching the program and that provided key support during RCP’s first two years of operation,” says RCP director Mike Greco. “Thanks to IonE and the U of M’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, RCP has connected more than 100 graduate and undergraduate courses across 11 U of M colleges and more than 1,000 students with meaningful experiential-learning opportunities during our first three years of operation. Those students have provided assistance with 59 community-identified projects that help to advance local sustainability in the Twin Cities metro area.”

The project is now evaluating its early operations and looking for ways to encourage implementation of the sustainability initiatives that come out of the partnerships.

College of Education and Human Development Ph.D. student Doug Moon is currently conducting a comprehensive evaluation of RCP’s first three partnerships. “We hope to use insights gathered from this process to inform how we can best support our community partners in implementing their sustainability efforts once the formal RCP partnership has ended, as well as how we might modify the program to better meet the needs of participants,” says Greco.

RCP 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. 

River Life 

River Life began in 2005 as a vehicle to better integrate the campus with the Mississippi River. After coming under the IonE umbrella as a temporary program a few years later, the project began more strategically merging river science with cultural and conservation activities.

Patrick Nunnally, River Life’s director, says his academic background in environmental humanities and professional experience in planning, community development and preservation have given him a rich understanding of the Mississippi River’s cultural meaning. He says working with IonE gave him a more scientific perspective and understanding of the complexity of rivers.

“It wasn’t until River Life came to IonE and I spent time with a diverse array of scientists that I came to understand anything about how the river works,” Nunnally says. “Sediment is maybe the most visible pollutant, but not the most dangerous; within the general flow direction of the water, there are many crosscurrents and eddies at different levels in the water column; the composition of the riverbed is vitally important to the makeup of the aquatic ecological communities in a particular place; the site-specific particulars of river-adjacent land use are fundamentally important to water quality. All kinds of things like that … are second nature to river scientists but are poorly understood by many planners, community development people and folks who work in education and interpretation of human stories,” he says.

River Life is now housed within the Institute for Advance Study, where it can take advantage of the Institute’s community-building focus. Follow the River Talk blog here. 

Nutrient Network 

Catalyzed by a $480,000 IonE Discovery Grant, the Nutrient Network is a unique global research network aiming to understand the effects of human-induced fertilization on grasslands — land dominated by nonwoody vegetation.

Research from NutNet “helps us better understand human impacts to decomposition and nutrient cycling, carbon and nutrient movement into groundwater, soil microbial communities, plant-associated microbial communities, and insect diversity,“ says NutNet co-director Elizabeth Borer, an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences.

Recent studies made possible in part by IonE have found that exotic plant species in grasslands thrive on added nutrients, whether from active or passive (nitrogen transported in the air, for example) fertilization, while the abundance and diversity of native plants declines.

“With IonE support for travel and meeting space, NutNet has hosted two working meetings, bringing in researchers from 12 countries spanning six continents,” says Borer. “NutNet meetings hosted at IonE have led to 15 research publications [and] dozens of press releases and news articles for non-scientific audiences, and have generated an exceptional collaborative and learning environment for the project’s researchers.”

NutNet is now hosted by the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences.

Sustainability Symposium 

The Sustainability Symposium started as a one-time student exhibit, presentation and networking event funded by a $4,200 IonE Mini Grant. It proposed in 2011 to build a student community around research communication and intended to connect students across disciplines and across the University system.

“We felt a lack of unifying activities for students doing sustainability work in disciplines outside CFANS and biology,” says Jennifer Schmitt, lead scientist for IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise and one of the co-founders of the event. “We wanted a forum for people from across campus doing sustainability work to practice communicating their work in a safe, fun environment.”

The Sustainability Symposium has continued as a yearly event hosted by the Sustainability Studies undergraduate program. “The event has grown from a few dozen to nearly 50 presenters and more than 200 attendees,” says Beth Mercer-Taylor, who heads the Sustainability Studies program and coordinates the symposium. “Each year, as our symposium approaches, I look forward to the abundance of new ideas and approaches to issues related to sustainability that will be on display. The buzz of energy from our students and a highly engaged audience of fellow students, faculty, staff and community members who care passionately about this work is electrifying.”

Every year in April, undergraduate, graduate and professional students from such diverse programs as civil and mechanical engineering, psychology, architecture, music, finance, chemistry, animal science and more present their projects through posters, five-minute “lightning talks,” art, design and video, describing how their work supports or advances sustainability goals.

“The new relationships that are built are what make the day really matter for our students, and even for the faculty and staff who get to see new ways of looking at sustainability questions,” says Mercer-Taylor. “We pull in graduate, professional and undergraduate students from across 12 different colleges and dozens of departments. The cross-pollination going on is amazing — it’s like a flourishing prairie ecosystem in full summer bloom.”

Get details on all IonE funding opportunities on IonE’s Fellowships & Grants page.

Photo by Josh Kohanek

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