Welcome to
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision-making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. We convene science teams to work on broad issues of national and international relevance, such as water resources management, land management, agriculture, species protection, among other areas of study. By supporting interdisciplinary science teams and researchers with diverse skills, data, and perspectives, SESYNC seeks to lead in-depth research and scholarship that will inform decisions and accelerate scientific discovery. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

The Role of Dams in Creating a Water-Secure World

February 25, 2014

Research Assistant

“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.”

- Sandra Postel, director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project

Water of sufficient quantity and quality is necessary to sustain both human populations as well as aquatic ecosystems. Over the years, we have witnessed legal battles over access to water at the border of Florida and Georgia; discussions about piping water over the American Rockies; and iconic clashes between the incompatible goals of building large water infrastructure projects for agriculture, electricity, and other human needs while trying to maintain the natural flow of rivers crucial to aquatic species. Most recently, a major drought in California has highlighted the conflicts between farmers, environmentalists, households, and industry over water use allocations.

Large water infrastructure projects dramatically alter the natural flow regimes of rivers, and consequently result in major disruptions to river ecosystems and the organisms that rely upon them. Dams, for example, can block fish passages, change the quantity and timing of water flow, promote erosion downstream, and fundamentally change upstream landscapes by flooding them with reservoirs.

Yet we build dams, because they can be a source of hydropower, flood protection, and reliable short-term water supply. As these benefits can accelerate poverty alleviation and development around the world, international organizations such as the World Bank and USAID are now footing the bill for large water infrastructure projects. However, dams built on the basis of ensuring sufficient quantities of water for humans can be ultimately undermined by the negative water quality and ecosystem consequences of long-term changes to the natural flow of rivers. In response, people are increasingly interested in incorporating ecological principles into their work so both natural capital and ecosystems can be preserved while providing sources of energy and water security where they are most needed.

A group of engineers, ecologists, and economists in a SESYNC Pursuit are working towards developing strategies that could integrate these dual purposes, with the goal of providing decision makers, engineers, and economists with the tools to both maximize future reliability of water infrastructure and minimize costs to the environment.

There are at least three levels of decision making processes the group is tackling. The first set revolves around the design decisions that go into dam construction and operation—i.e., how to build a dam. Ecological factors are sometimes thought of as a constraint on design; however, an explicit analysis of the tradeoffs between ecosystem needs and engineering possibilities should reveal the most cost-effective strategies for different scenarios.

The second set of questions addresses how to resolve discrepancies between the needed and available temporal and spatial data required to make informed decisions. Depending on the location and purpose, for example, could several small dams accomplish the same goal as one large dam while protecting sensitive environments or facilitating the migration of important fish species? By identifying key ecosystem services to protect and maintain, engineers and ecologists can more explicitly analyze tradeoffs between environmental concerns and the services a dam provides. Even if this involves a time investment to monitor the behavior of a commercially-important fish species, or water variability in a previously unknown stretch of river, the results of reduced uncertainty could be valuable in the long run.

On a broader level, the group hopes to provide an innovative framework for policy-level decision making about water infrastructure in the face of major uncertainty about future water supply and  demand estimates. With high uncertainty, there may be more reliable and less costly ways to meet the water needs identified by policy makers instead of building permanent structures on the landscape. Rather than make a large initial investment in dam construction, new green infrastructure or land preservation practices could expand the range of potential options for successive generations, instead of “locking us in” to the same old fights about water allocation.

Click here to learn more about the SESYNC Pursuit “Climate Change & Water Resources Adaptation: Decision Scaling & Integrated Eco-engineering Resilience.”

Above photo: Pitlochry Power Station dam and fish ladder
Credit: xlibber, Flickr/Creative Commons

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Gedenkschrift for William Freudenburg

February 21, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Good mentors are more than just seasoned career professionals willing to share their knowledge. Good mentors invest a part of themselves in a student or mentee to inspire intellectual growth and performance, creativity, and character.

Dr. William (Bill) R. Freudenburg was a University of California - Santa Barbara professor, renowned environmental sociologist, and dissertation advisor to SESYNC Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Mary B. Collins. Under Freudenburg’s mentorship, Collins studied the sociopolitical factors and social problems that influence the creation of ecological harm and environmental injustice. Freudenburg passed away in 2010 while Collins was still in pursuit of her degree, but their time together directly framed Collins’ current research on the double disproportionality concept—i.e., how certain groups disproportionately create a majority of environmental harm that in turn disproportionately impacts other groups, often distinguishable by race or class.

“I went to Santa Barbara specifically to work with Bill,” says Collins. “I didn’t know him outside of his writing, but was pleasantly surprised to find that he was as cool as he was smart. His door was always open, even through the end of his illness—he was incredibly generous with his time, and completely devoted to his scholarship.”

At UC Santa Barbara, Freudenburg and Collins focused part of their research on how public–private partnerships are transformed by the advancement of technologies. A resultant article, “Temporal Myopia: A Case of Promising New Technologies, the Federal Government, and Inherent Conflicts of Interest,” was recently published in Volume 21 of Research in Social Problems and Public Policy: William R. Freudenburg, A Life in Social Research.

The volume is a Gedenkschrift, or memorial publication, that commemorates Freudenburg’s impacts to both the field of sociology and to the scholarship of those he worked with and influenced. Contributors include both colleagues and students; articles include personal reminiscences, research that reflects on and builds upon Freudenburg’s own work, and articles—like Collins’—that were co-developed with Freudenburg.

“Temporal Myopia” looks at the complications that may arise as the federal government and technologies co-evolve (from promoter to regulator and from emergent to established, respectively). Using the nuclear and nanotechnology industries as case studies, the article suggests that the federal government may create conflicts of interest by regulating the very technological industries it has financed. Freudenburg and Collins conclude by citing a need for additional research into how the federal government can balance its financial interests in a technology’s success with its responsibility to protect the public’s safety and investment, so as to “preserve both government credibility and public trust before it is too late.”

To Collins, the article’s significance is two-fold. “Certainly, the subject matter is important,” she says. “But for me, its genuine value is in paying tribute to Bill’s legacy.”

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Socio-Environmental Synthesis for Grad Students

February 10, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Socio-environmental synthesis: if it were easy, everyone would do it.

It’s a new research approach rooted in the multifaceted and complex interactions between humans and the ecosystems in which they live. It requires interdisciplinary teams of scholars, policy makers, and practitioners, who in many cases have never before worked together, to sit down at the same table. It calls for inquiry-based innovations sprung from newly constructed relationships and consensuses on traditionally competing semantics, methodologies, and worldviews.

Socio-environmental synthesis, it turns out, is anything but easy.

But it’s also the future of meaningful and actionable scientific research. That’s why we recently hosted 20 graduate students representing the future leaders of socio-environmental synthesis at our Center for a workshop specifically designed to support their pursuit of novel, independent synthesis research. The workshop was the second stage in what has been our engagement of graduate students at SESYNC—preceded by the Graduate Scholars Program, in which invited graduate students identified two Themes (general research topics that may include a variety of related research questions) exclusively for emerging scholars. The Themes, “Cities in Sustainable Resource Management” and “Surprise in Human Adaptation to Environmental Change,” are perfect examples of dynamic, complex socio-environmental problems that require the collaboration of disparate fields—from urban planning to oceanography and data science to human psychology—to begin to solve.

The challenges of interdisciplinary team science are something even established scholars at the top of their fields can struggle with. Divergent disciplinary ideas or goals; incompatible personalities; and strains on productivity related to inefficient communication methods, personnel turnover, etc. are all common difficulties.

Graduate researchers are ripe for the type of training and networking offered by this recent workshop. At this point in their education, in many cases, they are comparatively well exposed to interdisciplinarity. That wasn’t always the case.

“Thirty years ago, if you weren’t in one of those disciplinary silos, then you weren’t anywhere,” says Dr. Rachel Berndtson, SESYNC Research Associate and co-organizer of the workshop. “Now, you see interdisciplinarity everywhere—but there’s a big difference between seeing it or thinking about it and actually doing it. One of the major goals of this workshop was for the participants to leave with a tangible set of skills for tackling the ‘doing’ of interdisciplinary and team science.”

The nuts and bolts of the workshop consisted of general introductions to SESYNC and our thematic project structure, socio-environmental systems, and actionable science by Dr. Margaret Palmer, SESYNC Executive Director, and Dr. Jon Kramer, SESYNC Directory of Interdisciplinary Science. Keynote speakers Dr. Jianguo Wu, Arizona State University; Dr. Suzanne Malec-McKenna, The Morton Arboretum; and Dr. Karl Zimmerer, Pennsylvania State University spoke on the two Themes identified by the Graduate Scholars Program. And a panel of SESYNC project PIs—which included Dr. Brian McGill, University of Maine; Dr. Helen Fox, World Wildlife Fund; and Dr. Linwood Pendleton, Duke University—provided feedback and answered questions on their own experiences as leaders of interdisciplinary team science at SESYNC.

“Their insights were really valuable, because they’ve been through this, and were able to say, ‘Here are some of the things to look out for when putting together a project plan and working with a diverse research team,’” Berndtson says.

At the heart of the workshop was an emphasis on social dynamics. Those traditionally competing semantics, methodologies, and worldviews amongst interdisciplinary team members are where most of the challenges of managing such teams thrive—so establishing trust before the work even begins is crucial. The same held true for our workshop: the participants exemplified the diversity of gender, geographic location, and scientific background typical of the team projects we fund at SESYNC.

“I was really blown away by the degree to which everyone meshed,” Berndtson says. “I mean, these students were sitting directly next to their competitors. The caliber of scholarship was so high—some of the best graduate student resumes I’ve ever seen—but the spirit of collaboration and camaraderie was also high.

“The grad students independently organized a group following the second full day of the workshop, and, amongst other conversations, began discussing Pursuit proposals. During the third day, there were two or three separate break-out groups of students discussing what kind of data they had access to, how they might jointly frame their research, identifying people they know here or there that could do this or that as a potential member of another participant’s project. It was really cool to see those social catalysts for cooperation.”

SESYNC will formally announce its RFP for the graduate Themes in spring 2014. Graduate students in the social, natural, and computational sciences will be invited to apply—the opportunity will be open to students who attended the workshop, as well as students who did not attend.

While the workshop organizers hope to see proposals from all attendees, they know the graduate students can apply what they learned to work and research outside of SESYNC, as well.

“We viewed it as, we’re training the next generation of scholars to be capable of doing socio-environmental synthesis research. We would love for them all to be doing that at SESYNC, because what better forum?” says Berndtson. “But the need for socio-environmental research and interdisciplinary team science extends beyond SESYNC. These are skills they’ll carry throughout the rest of their careers.”

Take an inside view of the workshop. Click here to view Storified tweets from the workshop.

Above photo: Social and natural scientist "speed dating." Workshop participants get to know one another and build networking potential for future collaborations.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Modeling Locally, Thinking Globally

January 29, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Above figure: Locations of eastern Asian sites: two in China (western Shandong Province, China (a) and Northern Hunan Province, China (b)), two in Luoang Namtha, Laos (c).

Not all land uses are created equal. Among and between different kinds of land uses, their environmental impacts range from negligible to devastating. Which drivers—environmental, social, economic, etc.—influence the land use choices of a farmer, pastoralist, or housing developer may have once been treated as a question of local relevance, but a team of researchers is now studying them as forces of global significance.

Led by Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, computational research associate at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), the team has developed a computational model that is laying the foundation for understanding what motivates people’s land use decisions, on both local and global scales, based on their livelihood strategies. A scientific paper based on the research, which Magliocca wrote as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was published January 29 in the journal PLOS ONE. Magliocca’s co-authors included Dr. Daniel G. Brown of the University of Michigan and Dr. Erle C. Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Land use is often tied to a person’s means of making a living. With forces such as climate change, population growth, and economic globalization at play, livelihood strategies are changing—and those changes transform how people use land. Understanding how such forces influence the choices different land users in different regions make is the first step to supporting land uses that are environmentally and economically sustainable for generations to come.

This type of analysis isn’t easy. “The traditional mode of scientific experimentation is not feasible with real land use systems,” Magliocca says. “We’re talking about people's land and livelihoods here.”

Agent-based models—used as “virtual laboratories,” as Magliocca calls them—offer a powerful and practical means of simulating the actions and interactions of agents (in this case, individual or groups of land users) in order to assess their interactions with the larger system of which they are a part.

Land use change has been studied mostly by researchers creating highly detailed, specialized models that apply to a single location and are highly context-dependent. However, we can learn a lot about what influences land use choices through comparative research across different sites.

“That’s nearly impossible if you’re trying to compare models that were created for a single specific location,” says Magliocca. “Our modeling framework is different because it uses the same model structure, language, logic, and variables across different sites so that those sites can be compared in ways that provide us with meaningful insights. It will help us understand local decisions and activities in larger global contexts.”

“This model is a significant advance in modeling practice. Sometimes it performs well—it reproduces what you actually see on the ground—and in other cases, it misses. But when it misses, the model is informative about what’s going wrong and why it misses, which is hugely informative for the subsequent models we’re laying the foundation for.”

The team hopes to continue their work with a larger research project using volunteered, crowd-sourced local data. These data would help improve the accuracy of the models at any given site while still maintaining a global context by parameterizing the model—i.e., providing a reference for how the local data relate to global data sets already being used.

“We’d be asking local inhabitants for information such as crop prices, land prices, these sorts of things,” says Magliocca. “And we hope to create a system that then delivers the data back to them. We’ll see if that gets funded—it’d be pretty cool if it does.”

The National Science Foundation supported the research under the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT), East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students (EAPSI), and GLOBE Project awards. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center—funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland—is an Annapolis, Maryland-based research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and natural systems.

Follow Blog by Email

Like what you've read? Click here to sign up for our e-newsletter and to receive updates from SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Socio-Ecological Movements in Urban Ecosystems

December 17, 2013

Postdoctoral Fellow

How do urban ecosystems recover from environmental disasters? Answering this question requires the bridging of social science and ecological research—the goal of the Socio-Ecological Movements in Urban Ecosystems (MOVE) project led by Dr. Henrik Ernstson. This project studies how urban civic organizations engage local green areas, such as protecting and rehabilitating wetlands, urban farming, and tree planting, to produce ecological changes. The project has many components involving both social and ecological science teams studying areas in South Africa (Cape Town) and the United States (New Orleans, Louisiana), with additional plans to add future sites as well. I joined the social science team in South Africa in 2012. This fall, we had the first combined meeting of the social science and ecological teams for both South Africa and the U.S.

In my portion of the MOVE project, referred to as the Civic Network Study, we interviewed representatives of Cape Town organizations and asked them about how their groups mobilized around green spaces. For example, some groups organized to protect the hiking trails on a nearby mountain; some worked to improve water quality in nearby wells or streams; and others had broader missions of social justice with many different campaigns. We are also studying the networks formed when these organizations collaborate with each other and how ties between organizations with similar goals, tactics, ideological platforms, etc. relate to their perceptions of success. The ecological team gathered information on the types of plants and animals present in a sampling of areas around Cape Town that included many of the sites mentioned by the organizations surveyed by the social science team. They want to see how much impact these groups have had and what the different recovery or improvement processes look like around the city.

The purpose of our meeting in New Orleans was to have the social and ecological teams from Cape Town discuss their data sets and initial findings together, as well as to speak with the teams based in New Orleans about their project, where data collection is currently underway. On the first day of the meeting, Dr. Joshua Lewis, project leader of the New Orleans teams and a native of the city, led a field trip around the area. He called attention to the interplay between social and environmental forces within the city, and how continuous feedback loops between those forces have shaped the city. For example, we saw where soil displacement due to water traffic has alternately shored up land around private homes in some areas but aided erosion in others (like the lower 9th ward that was so devastated by Hurricane Katrina).

The quote that stayed with me throughout that first day was that New Orleans is “the inevitable city in the impossible location.” Social and economic forces demanded a stronghold at the gateway to the Mississippi River, which made the land the inevitable site for a city, but the “impossible” physicality of the location has had a constant impact on the nature of its growth. This description was driven home when we saw the area of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) levee that collapsed during Hurricane Katrina (below photo).

Photo credit:Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA, Flickr/Creative Commons

Some houses, destroyed by the flood that resulted from the levee breach, are being rebuilt in the same location as before—steps from the levee. One example are the homes from Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project just to the east of the Claiborne Ave Bridge. These homes have been at the center of controversy because this part of the 9th Ward is still vulnerable to flooding, and initially these houses cost approximately $400,000 each (below photo).

Photo credit: Mark Gstohl, Flickr/Creative Commons

We also visited the now almost-destroyed cypress forest of Bayou Bienvenue. The photo below shows the forest today—almost entirely open water—but before the construction of the MRGO in the 1960s, this was a thriving freshwater forest. The introduction of saltwater through the MRGO starting in the 1970s destroyed the ecosystem and made the lower 9th ward, the eastern edge of which was built on dredged swampland, even more vulnerable to flooding. (For more info and restoration projects, click here.) The day was capped off by watching the new documentary MRGOing, Going, Gone? The filmmakers began filming this documentary about the Gulf Outlet in 2003, but kept filming for years afterwards due to Hurricane Katrina and its devastation. The consequences of the Hurricane were greatly intensified by the prior damage the MRGO had done to the New Orleans coastline. The filmmakers caught predictions of such devastation on tape years before Katrina struck, and they cogently showed how the construction of the MRGO set the conditions for a disaster like Katrina because large residential populations were positioned on increasingly vulnerable soil.

Photo credit: Infrogmation, Flickr/Creative Commons

Touring these areas gave the Cape Town teams some background into the New Orleans case. The two teams then discusses parallels in the history of the two cities: both are port towns; both are a melting pot of native populations, colonialists, and immigrants; and both have witnessed recent massive ecological upheaval. The South Africa teams (both social and ecological) tried to impart some lessons from the data gathering that has gone on in Cape Town to help plan for data collection in New Orleans.

The second day focused on the data our project teams have collected on social movement organizations and area plants and animals in Cape Town, South Africa. The social science team (Henrik Ernstson, Mario Diani, and me) hadn’t all met since designing the survey a year prior. Now that we had the data in hand, we needed to inspect it for errors and clean (i.e., remove duplicates among) the list of organizations mentioned. Cleaning the civic networks dataset was an especially challenging undertaking with 120 surveys ranging from 1–2 hours in length. After we finished cleaning, we identified 1,005 unique organizations including those interviewed, and identified a target set of organizations that were central in these original networks (meaning they were mentioned by three or more other interviews) for interviews in the second wave that will start soon.

This cleaning process took us much longer than the meeting in New Orleans, but it is now completed. We’re waiting for our colleagues to finish up the last few interviews, and then we will start the analyses. We plan to present findings at the 7th annual Political Networks conference at McGill University in May 2014. Hopefully, we’ll be able to compare our findings to those of the New Orleans group shortly thereafter.

Top photo: Jocelyn Augustino
Middle photo: Mark Gstohl
Bottom photo: Infrogmation
All photos Flickr/Creative Commons

Follow Blog by Email

Like what you've read? Click here to sign up for our e-newsletter and to receive updates from SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Computational Challenges

November 21, 2013

Research Associate

Over the last decade, agent-based modeling (ABM) has become a popular approach for investigating human–environment interactions (An, 2012). The recognition that humans are primary agents of change in the natural landscape (Ellis and Ramankutty, 2008)—combined with the ability of ABMs to explicitly model human decision-making—drives the popularity of this approach. A particularly interesting application of ABMs to socio-environmental systems has been to explore sudden transitions, or thresholds, that can emerge in natural systems due to human activities. A relevant example of interactions between sea level rise, rapid shoreline erosion, and beach nourishment can be found here.

In addition to being cool science, this example demonstrates a fundamental challenge of studying human–environment interactions and why computational models are becoming so important: the long time and massive spatial scales of most human–environment systems make it impossible to conduct traditional field-based research. Further, if one wants to learn something by comparing human–environment interactions across multiple locations, then either a small army of field technicians that can be deployed across sites is required, or the researcher must bring the real system into the computer via a simulation model. These cross-site comparative questions are currently some of the most compelling research questions being asked: how are human–environment systems similar or different across locations; is there something about a particular location that makes human–environment interactions more or less sustainable; and under what conditions do sudden transitions in sustainability occur?

Of course, just because it is easier to ask cross-site comparative questions with computational rather than field-based approaches, doesn't mean answering them is any easier. In fact, carrying out many iterations of computational experiments for a large set of study sites can be computationally challenging. Depending on the models and number of study sites, one could be facing days (or even ... gulp ... weeks) of computer time!

Fortunately, in this age of interdisciplinary research teams, socio-environmental researchers are finding strong allies in computer scientists. These new partnerships bring challenges for both parties. From my own experience as a socio-environmental researcher, I have had to become fluent with more computing jargon than I  knew existed in order to ask the right questions, and my computer scientist colleagues are finding new challenges with parallel computing of distributed, interacting, rule-based algorithms common in ABMs. Add large and complicated data sets for parameterizing and testing ABMs to it, and the computational challenges become more than most individual researchers can handle. Thus, finding adequate computational support is critical for progressing beyond these technical barriers, and can present opportunities to ask new research questions that about complex, large-scale socio-environmental systems that could not otherwise be asked.

Researchers interested in data-intensive and modeling-based projects are invited to submit applications to SESYNC’s newest research theme. Full details on the call for proposals can be found here.


An, L. (2012). Modeling human decisions in coupled human and natural systems: review of agent-based models. Ecological Modelling, 229, 25–36.

Ellis, E.C. and Ramankutty, N. (2008). Putting people in the map: Anthropogenic biomes of the world. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6, 439–47.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Of Mosquitoes & Men

October 22, 2013

They may be small, but their bites can be mighty.

Mosquitoes are the insects we love to hate—most species consume blood from living vertebrates, including humans, and in the process may transmit harmful, sometimes fatal diseases such as West Nile virus, malaria, and dengue and yellow fever. (Not to mention those itchy red bites that ruin your summer nights.) Surely, someone has argued that the noblest of professions is the scientist who studies the management of mosquito populations.

Which brings us to Dr. Paul Leisnham, Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland. Dr. Leisnham’s research seeks to understand where mosquitoes breed and how they spread diseases—an understanding that wouldn’t be possible, he says, without simultaneously studying the behavior of humans.

Want to know more about the socio-ecological connection between mosquitoes and people? Read more about Dr. Leisnham’s research here.

Further Reading

A member of the SESYNC extended family, Dr. Leisnham mentored one of our 2013 summer interns, Sophie Jin. Read her blog about her internship here.


The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is a national research center funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland.

Located in Annapolis, MD, SESYNC is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems. Socio-environmental synthesis is a research approach that accelerates the production of knowledge about the complex interactions between human and natural systems. It may result in new data products—particularly ones that address questions in new spatial or temporal contexts or scales—but may also involve evaluating textual or oral arguments, interpreting evidence, developing new applications or models, or identifying novel areas of study.

Above photo: Calgary Reviews, Creative Commons/Flickr


Subscribe to SESYNC RSS