Science & Tech

Center for Environment announces new fellows

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From Sri Lankan tree frogs and Australian algae to the grasslands of East Africa, the research topics of the latest group of Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE) Environmental Fellows represent their diverse backgrounds. The five fellows — from five different countries — will begin their work this September, joining the five fellows from the program’s inaugural group (two of the first seven fellows, Peter Huybers and Valeriy Ivanov, left the program early for faculty positions at Harvard and the University of Michigan, respectively).

This second cohort also includes the Environmental Fellows Program’s first John and Elaine French Environmental Fellow and the first Kernan Brothers Fellow — the first two endowed fellowships established at the center for this program.

The 2007-08 HUCE fellows are as follows:

Gil Bohrer is an atmospheric physicist who focuses on atmosphere-biosphere-hydrosphere interactions. Bohrer will receive his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering in June 2007 from Duke University. Before attending Duke, he earned an M.S. in ecology and a B.S. in biology from Ben-Gurion University in Israel. For his Ph.D. thesis, Bohrer developed a computational framework for simulating the dynamics of forest-atmosphere interactions, as well as a detailed model of plant hydraulic architecture. These models were used to study the effects of forest canopy heterogeneity on turbulence and dispersion and to indicate possible biases in atmospheric point observations from eddy flux towers. They were also applied in a related project to study the ecological consequences of indigenous and invasive seed dispersal by wind in the tropical rain forest in Panama.

As an Environmental Fellow, Bohrer will work with Paul Moorcroft (Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology) on biosphere-atmosphere interactions around forest gaps and edges. He is particularly interested in how small-scale forest discontinuities affect forests at large scales, especially in regard to the exchanges of water, energy, and carbon dioxide that represent the life functioning of forests. “Exploring how structural vegetation heterogeneities, whether they are naturally or anthropogenically induced, modify these exchange rates remains one of the pivotal problems in atmospheric science and hydrology,” Bohrer writes, “with obvious practical and theoretical significance for boundary layer meteorology, study of climate variability, plant ecology, and air quality.”

Rebecca Case is a microbial ecologist studying the effects of bacterial-algal interactions on the marine sulfur cycle and on climate change more broadly. She received her Ph.D. in microbial ecology in January from the University of New South Wales, Australia, where she also received a B.A. in environmental studies and a B.Sc. in environmental science. As part of her doctoral work at the university’s Centre of Marine Biofouling and Bio-innovation, Case isolated the bacterium Ruegeria R11, a novel bacterial pathogen of algae whose virulence is temperature dependent, similar to the bacterial-induced bleaching of corals. Her finding suggests that algae may be susceptible to a similar impact from rising ocean temperatures via global warming as is seen in corals.

As an Environmental Fellow, she will work with Roberto Kolter of Harvard Medical School to continue her research on bacterial-algal interactions and unravel the role of this type of interaction in the release of the climate-regulating compound dimethyl sulfide (DMS) from algae. The taxonomic group to which R11 belongs, roseobacters, are known to metabolize algal-derived dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) to DMS, an important intermediate in the sulfur cycle that regulates climate through formation of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). CCN and the resulting cloud formation have a cooling effect on local temperatures. Thus, an important implication of this research is the potential negative feedback effect that this type of bacterial-algal interaction may produce as ocean temperatures rise. Increasing roseobacterial virulence, leading to the release of more algal-derived DMS and increased cloud formation, could potentially result in a self-regulating mechanism for climate.

Garth Heutel is an economist who studies the dynamic interactions between environmental policies and economic issues. He earned a B.S. in physics and philosophy from the University of Michigan in 2000. He taught high school mathematics for two years in San Jose, Calif., with the program Teach For America. In 2002 he entered graduate school at the University of Texas, Austin, earning an M.S. in 2005 and a Ph.D. in 2007, both in economics.

Heutel’s dissertation combined three analytical projects. First, he studied the effect of the Clean Air Act (CAA) on electric utilities’ decisions to invest in new technologies. Because the CAA grandfathers old plants, utilities are less likely to scrap these plants and replace them with newer ones. These provisions may increase the use of older, dirtier power plants and thus increase emissions, significantly impacting environmental quality.

Second, he developed a model to examine the distribution of the costs of different types of environmental policies. Tradable emissions permits, technology mandates, or performance standards all affect firms’ demand for capital and labor, which impacts how the costs of these policies are borne among capital owners and laborers. Third, he studied the interaction between public and private funding sources for public goods like parks and charitable endeavors.

As an Environmental Fellow, Heutel plans to continue modeling and analyzing environmental policies using recently developed computational methods. He will work with Richard Zeckhauser, the Frank Plumpton Ramsey Professor of Political Economy at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG). Heutel’s first research project at Harvard will examine other cases of grandfathering in environmental policies, such as the New Source Review policy of the Clean Air Act or Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for new automobiles. He plans to develop a dynamic model of consumer choice of automobiles in the presence of these policies and estimate the model to evaluate the impact of policy changes. He also plans a study of the relationship between real business cycles and optimal environmental policy.

Madhava Meegaskumbura is an evolutionary biologist focusing on understanding species extinction and how best to construct conservation strategies for endangered species in biodiversity hot spots. Originally from Sri Lanka, Meegaskumbura worked for several years with the Wildlife Heritage Trust organization in that country before entering graduate school at Boston University. He earned a Ph.D. in biology in May 2007. At the center of Meegaskumbura’s doctoral field research was his astonishing discovery of nearly 100 previously undescribed species of tree frogs — about 2 percent of the global total of frog species. While this discovery underlines Sri Lanka’s status as a global biodiversity hot spot, Meegaskumbura’s research also showed that 19 species of Sri Lankan tree frogs have become extinct since 1850, representing an extraordinary 60 percent of the 32 global amphibian extinctions confirmed by The World Conservation Union’s “Red List.” These developments in Sri Lanka are especially pertinent given that they come at a time when amphibian populations worldwide are declining, in many cases inexplicably.

As an Environmental Fellow, Meegaskumbura will continue his research on tree frogs in an effort to identify correlates of threat and extinction and to develop strategies to be used to predict and prevent future species extinctions. He will work with James Hanken, professor of biology and director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, to study the underlying patterns and processes that generate and maintain biodiversity in a global biodiversity hotspot and to construct conservation strategies that are broadly applicable to many other organisms.

Esther Mwangi, a native of Kenya, is a political scientist whose broad research interests concern the role of institutions (particularly property rights) in fostering sustainable natural resource management and improving local livelihoods. Her research also addresses issues of gender, land rights, and the politics of policymaking in natural resources and conservation.

Mwangi earned a Ph.D. in public policy from Indiana University in 2003 and is co-winner of the 2005 Harold D. Laswell Award for the best doctoral dissertation in the field of policy studies. Her dissertation examined the ecological and livelihood impacts of changing property rights arrangements in the Maasai rangelands of East Africa. She most recently was a postdoctoral fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), working with the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research’s system-wide program on Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRi). As part of her fellowship she coordinated a global research project examining the role of collective action and property rights for poverty reduction in East Africa and Asia. She also started research on the implications of forest governance reforms on local livelihoods and forest sustainability in East Africa and Latin America. Prior to joining IFPRI in 2007, Mwangi was a consultant to the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) and to Oxfam’s pastoralism program in Africa. From 1992 to 1997, she held a position as a research scientist with the Kenya Wildlife Service.

As an Environmental Fellow, she will work with William Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science Public Policy and Human Development at KSG. She plans to use multiple methods — including survey research, in-depth interviews, and remote sensing — to extend her analysis of the interactions between property rights transformation, rangeland management, and livelihoods in semiarid pastoral systems, with a focus on East Africa.

Gil Bohrer will be the first holder of the John and Elaine French Fellowship. John and Elaine Environmental French endowed this fellowship through their $1.5 million gift to the center in 2006. Garth Heutel will hold the Kernan Brothers Fellowship, an endowed fellowship fund established by Gilbert Butler in honor of his four Harvard uncles.

Additionally, Rebecca Case, Madhava Meegaskumbura, and Esther Mwangi will be supported by the generous gift of Robert Ziff and will be known as Ziff Environmental Fellows. Mwangi will also receive funding from the Giorgio Ruffolo Sustainability Science Fellowship at KSG.