Campus & Community

HUCE awards address environmental concerns

4 min read

The Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE) has announced the recipients of its 2002 Faculty Research Project Awards. As part of its mission to promote cross-disciplinary and cross-faculty research, the HUCE instituted this annual awards competition for teams of Harvard researchers who are looking to address environmental issues of global concern. The awards are made possible by a gift from the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation.

“The purpose of the award competition is to facilitate and support multidisciplinary approaches to environmental issues that might not otherwise evolve in the traditional academic model of a single principal investigator,” said Michael B. McElroy, director of HUCE and Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies. “Our hope is that this seed money will lead to major research projects that can stand alone. Indeed, a critical part of the review process was to identify proposals that held such promise,” he said.

During the past decade, a number of interdisciplinary research projects affiliated with the center have developed into major research initiatives, including the China Project – Harvard’s multidisciplinary research program on energy use and environmental protection in China and the role of environment in Sino-American relations.

For the 2002 award competition, three proposals were chosen to receive funding. The names of the recipients and their projects are as follows:

David R. Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, for “Ecological and Environmental Impacts of the Extinction of Core Species.” Foster’s project focuses on understanding how entire ecosystems can be controlled by a single species (such as hemlock in the Eastern United States) and what happens to these ecosystems when that species is lost because of invasive species and human activities. The project’s research team includes Ana P. Barros, associate professor of environmental engineering on the Gordon McKay Endowment in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science; Kathleen Donohue, assistant professor of biology; Aaron Ellison, senior research fellow; N. Michelle Holbrook, professor of biology; and Paul R. Moorcroft, assistant professor of biology (all from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology); Charles H. Foster, adjunct research fellow and lecturer, and James N. Levitt, director of the Internet and Conservation Project (both from the Kennedy School of Government).

Petros Koutrakis, professor of environmental sciences in the School of Public Health, for “Examining the Feasibility of Monitoring PM2.5.” Koutrakis and his research partner, Daniel J. Jacob, Gordon McKay Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, will examine the feasibility of using satellite data to estimate ground-level concentrations of fine particulate matter.

Daniel P. Schrag, professor of earth and planetary sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, for “Using Stable Isotopes to Track the Effects of Maize Cultivation on Malaria Transmission in Africa.” Schrag’s research partner is Andrew Speilman, professor of tropical public health in the School of Public Health.

The winners were selected by a peer review consisting of experts from both within and outside the University. Louise M. Ryan, professor of biostatistics in the School of Public Health, and Steven C. Wofsy, Abbott Lawrence Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, co-chaired the selection committee.

The stories behind each proposal illustrate the enthusiasm that Harvard faculty has – across the University – for finding ways to collaborate with one another. Schrag and Spielman first discovered a common interest in their subject when they met a few years ago at a dinner hosted by the HUCE. “Andy had a hypothesis that the cultivation of maize in Africa increased the efficiency of malaria transmission because maize pollen is super food for mosquito larvae,” said Schrag. “I was intrigued by the hypothesis, and thought we might be able to use some geochemical methods from my laboratory to test it by determining how much maize pollen the mosquitoes actually eat.”

While excited by their ideas, the professors were stymied about what to do next. “There was neither adequate funding nor personnel to move the project forward,” said Schrag.

Thanks to the HUCE Faculty Research Project Awards, Schrag and Spielman can now turn their idea into a full-scale research project. “Research awards like this one are crucial in bringing faculty together across the University to work on interdisciplinary problems,” said Schrag. “They are enormously important in encouraging partnerships like the one that Andy and I hope to forge.”