$3M NSF Research Training Grant to Build Resilience in East Coast’s Megalopolis

The United States at night, shown from space, with dense concentrations of light showing urban areas.
The densely populated East Coast will serve as an 'unnatural laboratory' for a new $3M National Science Foundation grant awarded to UConn researchers. (Getty Images)

Researchers from UConn and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies have been awarded a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program to fund a new program to help train graduate students in risk analysis to build resilient landscapes in the face urbanization and climate change.

The last century saw a precipitous rise in people moving from rural areas to cities. Growing urban areas, coupled with habitat degradation, resource exploitation, and the introduction of invasive species have coalesced to create major threats to food, energy, water, and ecosystem services, says Mark Urban, UConn Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor, Director of the Center of Biological Risk, and Principal Investigator of the grant.

This new program, titled “Building resilient landscapes for food, energy, water, and ecosystems in America’s megalopolis,” is aimed at training graduate students to understand, mitigate, and communicate these risks. Urban says UConn, nestled in the middle of the world’s first designated megalopolis, is uniquely positioned to study these issues.

Night time satellite photos of the East Coast show a glowing blanket of urban development, illuminating the land and banks of waterways. For the most part this twinkling sprawl is continuous, from Virginia all the way up to Maine, except for a couple of dark blips. One is the Hudson Valley, where the Cary Institute is located, and the other is an area often called “The Last Green Valley,” where UConn Storrs is located. UConn and the Carey Institute are in close proximity to both heavily-urbanized areas as well as some of the last wild and agricultural lands in the northeast.

This vast and unnatural laboratory will give future NRT scholars an opportunity to hone new skills. The NRT grants are highly competitive; when he was a graduate student, Urban saw how they benefited trainees.

“These grants are really the premier training grant for grad students and for research particularly the STEM fields going back for a long time,” he says. “As a grad student I was always jealous of those students that had the ability to take part in them because they received such amazing training and experiences.”

Urban hoped to bring the NRT program to UConn, and now he and 20 other faculty members from departments across campus have made that a reality.

“The Center of Biological Risk is now in its fourth year and we were looking for things we could do for UConn and the state of Connecticut,” Urban says. “One of the great things we can do is train students to assess risks for the state and understand how to communicate them effectively.”

Urban says that risk analysis research and communication is especially relevant right now in the times of the COVID pandemic.

“Though we started the process of writing this proposal four years ago, today we are witnessing firsthand the importance of analyzing biological risks, how to manage those risks — which we are in the throes of now making lots of mistakes but also having some successes — and how to communicate those risks. How do we do that?”

Examples of projects that trainees can undertake include studying the implications for building solar farms for energy hungry cities at the expense of farmland to feed hungry humans, or studying tradeoffs between relocation vs. making densely populated areas close to the coast more resilient to sea level rise.

Urbanization is happening worldwide, and the hope is the training framework developed in this program could be adopted by other institutions to train even more students in this important skillset. Risk assessment is in high demand in the job market, and through the course of this grant scholars will gain knowledge that can be translated to other sectors in the workforce.

“In general, NSF is looking to support the development of new models for STEM graduate education – it’s not just about training grad students, but in developing a whole new way of educating the next generation of STEM students,” says Urban.

“We recognize that many of our graduate students do not go into academia, and there is a need for grad students all across the workforce, including businesses, nonprofit, and government. We want to give students the skills they need to thrive in any sense,” he adds.

Urban says the program will apply multiple educational methods through the two-year sequence. The approached is called Team TERRA, or Team-based, Transdisciplinary, Estimating Risks, and Real-world Analysis.

It will combine active collaborative learning through team projects. Students entering the program will be placed into separate risk teams where they will experience problem-based learning by working directly with governments, companies, and nonprofits on risk analysis problems.

“The students will be involved in real-life problem solving, working with stakeholders and coming up with a project that is useful to the community, so there is a strong service learning element,” he says.

Another vital component of the project is to address the need for more diversity in the field.

“It is certainly true that graduate students are less diverse than the general population and that is a barrier to overcome. We need to get the full diversity of insights into the creative pool of students,” says Urban. “Graduate students are the university’s fountain of ingenuity: they’re the ones that bring the novel ideas to the principle investigators and make them happen. They are also the ones that teach and inspire our undergrads to continue on in STEM and go on to get higher education as well.”

Urban adds that with ever-decreasing funding for grad students and fewer and fewer teaching assistantships in higher education, this program will be a good way to support a diverse group of scholars while teaching them the skills needed for a rapidly-changing world.

 

The development of this proposal was supported by UConn’s Center of Biological Risk and the Institute of the Environment. Core faculty on the grant include UConn’s Milagros Castillo-Montoya, Chris Elphick, Lisa Park-Boush, Margaret Rubega, Kathleen Segerson, Guiling Wang, Michael Willig, Chuanrong Zhang, and Stewart Picket of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Additional participating faculty include Derek Aguiar, Kent Holsinger, Gene Likens, Nalini Ravishanker, Carl Schlichting, and John Volin.