Welcome to
SESYNC
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.

How Weeds Could Help Feed Billions in a Warming World

June 5, 2014

Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are conducting intensive experiments to cross hardy weeds with food crops such as rice and wheat. Their goal is to make these staples more resilient as higher temperatures, drought, and elevated CO2 levels pose new threats to the world’s food supply.

by LISA PALMER
Science Communication Fellow

Weeds that resemble knee-high grass grow in planter pots in a small room at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab just outside Washington, D.C. Light, heat, and carbon dioxide reach the plants at steady levels. For more than a month, the weeds have sustained the same conditions expected to be earth’s norm 35 years from now — carbon dioxide levels equivalent to an urban traffic jam, and temperatures tipping into the dangerous zone for the planet’s health.

But rather than choking from such treatment, the weeds — a wild plant called red rice — are thriving. The test lab mimics conditions expected around the world by 2050, when an additional 2.6 billion people will be wondering what’s for dinner.

Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, studies, among other things, weeds in food production and human health. Weeds beguile Ziska. Weeds may be the largest single limitation to global crop yield. But they also have traits that are useful to plant growth. Red rice, for instance, can adapt to more carbon dioxide and heat by producing more stems and grain — red rice has 80 to 90 percent more seed than cultivated rice.

Continue reading at Yale Environment 360.

Blue Angels Return to Annapolis

May 22, 2014

SESYNC is located in Annapolis, Maryland, a city recognized for its historic character, dedication to the arts, maritime connections, and support of the Chesapeake Bay. Both the city dock and U.S. Naval Academy are a mere mile from SESYNC’s offices—and this week, we took advantage of that proximity by taking in the Blue Angels flight rehearsal and demonstration.

The Blue Angels are the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. For the first time since 2011, they flew over Annapolis on May 20 and 21 for the Naval Academy’s commissioning week. Check out some of the photos communications coordinator Melissa Andreychek took from the Naval yard and SESYNC rooftop below!

Audience: 

Just What the [Marine Scientists] Ordered

May 21, 2014

Above photo: Fishing boats in Palawan Province, Philippines. Photo by Mary Aileen M. delas Alas via WorldFish, Flickr/Creative Commons.

by DAVID GILL
SESYNC–Luc Hoffmann Institute Postdoctoral Fellow

Take two aspirin with water.

Supported by numerous, rigorous medical studies, this tried-and-true medical advice applies to a host of afflictions—and is accompanied by a wide range of side effects. But it’s a clear treatment plan that people know and understand.

The world’s oceans cover most of our planet: they are home to nearly 50% of the world’s species, and more than 2.6 billion people rely on seafood for some part of their nutrition. However, the health of our oceans is currently threatened by climate change, pollution, habitat decline, and overfishing. It is clear that we need solutions to restore the abundant biodiversity in the world’s seas and to sustain it for future generations … but what would these solutions look like? What would an aspirin for the oceans be?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are increasingly common tools used to conserve threatened or important species and their habitats, increase the abundance of commercially important species for fisheries and recreation, as well as to reduce conflicts amongst marine users. Many countries have established MPAs as a “treatment” to protect their natural marine resources. Despite their general effectiveness, however, some MPAs have seen mixed results—past research has documented the “side effects” of MPAs, both positive and negative—as many social, political, and ecological factors appear to complicate the processes that would otherwise allow MPAs to be successful.

Using data collected from MPAs around the world, our Pursuit at SESYNC seeks to identify the governance and contextual factors that contribute to MPA success in order to guide future conversation. It is expected that our results will not provide a “one size fits all” explanation for MPA success, which presents a challenge when aiming to give recommendations for action. As a response to this issue, one team member drew an analogy during our recent Pursuit meeting from the medical field: after numerous, rigorous studies, medical researchers can prescribe patients to "take two aspirin,” even though results vary from individual to individual. Even though we may show that MPA performance may vary between cases (as with medicine and the human body), there is still a need to communicate clear and concise messages that we can stand behind scientifically, despite the many nuances and caveats that may exist. It’s a communications challenge our Pursuit group is working to address. Almost all the MPAs in the world will be implemented within the next 10 years, and we must address the need to ensure research translates to action.

The discussion also brought to light a “second story” that can be conveyed beyond the results of our analytical models. This came in response to a key question about our research: Do the tools and approaches we have in hand allow us to rigorously assess MPA success? Based on our limited success after months of data scoping and collation, involving local and regional agencies from around the world, it is evident that significant gaps exist in the available data on the impacts of MPAs, particularly in social science. Given these deficiencies, the group discussed how we could respond to key challenges:

  • If we have the ability to influence decisions differently, where funds are being allocated, and how research is done in the future, how could we encourage the decision makers, funders, and marine scientists to improve the consistency and collection of ecological and social data in order for us to effectively measure the social and ecological impacts of MPAs?
  • While still maximizing the (relatively limited) use of the data that is currently being collected, can we provide recommendations for key social, governance and ecological indicators that permit robust analysis of outcomes?

By the end of the meeting, the group identified some of the main audiences for the research, including MPA managers, other scientists, NGOs, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), private foundations, representatives of the CDB member states, and the general public. The forums to reach these groups were also identified, and included face-to-face meetings, web outputs, presentations and sessions at major conferences, published manuscripts, and high-level summary reports. It is hoped that the short-term outputs of this Pursuit result in long-term change in marine conservation activities and policy making.

Further Reading:

Expanding Marine Protected Area networks (WWF)

Dr. David Gill is funded through a collaborative partnership with the Luc Hoffmann Institute in support of the SESYNC Pursuit “Solving the Mystery of Marine Protected (MPA) Performance.” He is based at SESYNC’s Annapolis, Maryland center.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland and located in Annapolis, Maryland, United States, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and natural systems. Visit www.sesync.org for more information.

The Luc Hoffmann Institute, located in Gland, Switzerland, was created by WWF to respond to the most important questions facing conservation and sustainable development. Visit www.luchoffmanninstitute.org for more information.

Q&A with Dr. Mary Collins

May 19, 2014


Above, from left to right: Joseph JaJa, Ian Muñoz, and Mary Collins.

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

In a sense, the motivation for Dr. Mary Collins’ research can be characterized by a single question:

“How do they get away with it?”

Mary is an environmental sociologist interested in environmental inequality. It's a concept she defines broadly as the inequitable distribution of both environmental privileges and problems across social groups. Her research centers on the concept of “double disproportionality”—i.e., how a small group of industrial facilities disproportionately create a majority of environmental harm, which disproportionately impacts environmental justice groups (those often distinguishable by race or class).

As a postdoctoral fellow at SESYNC, Mary examines the magnitude and distribution of pollution from individual industry producers across the United States. With support from SESYNC Director of Cyberinfrastructure Joseph JaJa and SESYNC Scientific Programmer Ian Muñoz, she is developing a national-level disproportionality analysis and visualization that she hopes will help identify ways to address “the inequality that we all know exists.”

Below, Mary answers a few questions about her work … and a few questions just for fun.

You’ve said that you’re interested in “how the winners win and how the losers lose.” Who are the winners, and who are the losers?

Within in the context of my current project, the winners are the small groups of people, facilities, or organized interests who generate the vast majority of industrially-based harm, while escaping scrutiny from regulators or the public. The losers—who are likely communities of color and/or those who live in poverty—are the neighborhoods that bear more than their fair share of environmental harm across the United States.

How does the concept of environmental inequality relate to the winner–loser scenario?

Unavoidably, industrial activities create externalities—harmful effects such as air, land, and water pollution—and I’m interested in how these problems are created and where they are likely to end up. It’s my hunch that, in a society characterized by economic and racial equality, producers would be more likely to care about where externalities end up because the producers themselves might have to deal with them. Simply, if the dump is in your own backyard, you’re probably less likely to tolerate it. On the other hand, in a society characterized by inequality, producers may have an easier time transferring externalities to other groups, which, in my work, are groups with less power or lower social capital, and are likely people of color or those living in poverty. I’m interested in how this “transfer” happens.

This is just one idea—there are, of course, many hypotheses that attempt to explain the unequal distribution of environmental harm. But when I show, over and over again, that tiny minorities of producers create the vast majority of harm, I can’t help but think, “Why is this okay? Why does this seem to escape scrutiny?”

What do you personally find most important about your work?

My master’s advisor told me a story about working in an environmental justice community in Ft. Lauderdale. The shore of Ft. Lauderdale is really wealthy—there are huge houses on the canals and on the coastline. If you go inland a little bit, there’s an African American community that lives right next to a hazardous waste incinerator. My advisor was interviewing an African American woman who mentioned that her grandchildren would play in the snow. But they live in Florida—it doesn’t snow there. The thing is, they would play in the ashes that rained down from the facility when it was in operation—and unfortunately, several of the kids got cancer.

When dealing with the resultant dispute, a community matriarch said, “I don’t understand why this facility is here. Why can’t we just take all of this stuff and shovel it into the Everglades? Nobody lives there.”

This has been a guiding statement for me. If incinerated waste was shoveled into Everglades National Park, there would be groups lined up out the wazoo to protect the space. But when this lady’s children were dying, there was no one there to say that her family mattered. Clearly, both the Everglades and this woman’s family deserve protection. But I felt like it was a failure to let this woman’s kids die—this didn’t need to happen.

The best part about the work that I do is that it’s solution-oriented. If you can explain what’s going on, then you might be able to use the knowledge to do a lot of good for the environment and for the people who need it most, too.

What’s the coolest thing about your work?

Oh man, I don’t think this is going to be “cool.” I like data stuff. I like learning about how things fit together. And I like that we live in a place where you call up the government, and they give you terabytes of free information without too much trouble. I’ve always liked puzzles—when I’m at work and doing these types of analyses, I get to keep digging until I feel like I’ve dug enough to justify going bed at the end of the day. I never seem to run out of energy to keep digging. The puzzle aspect of my work is what keeps me hooked. Of course, I also find the topic fascinating, which helps.

What do you enjoy most about working at SESYNC?

The creativity that goes into collaborating with Joseph and Ian, which involves working across disciplines that are vastly different. This is the first time I’ve been in a collaborative situation where I feel like we’re all equals with very different skill sets. For example, we don’t divvy up the work and say, “You do this, I’ll do that, and we’ll just get it done.” In reality, I can’t do what Joseph does. Joseph can’t do what Ian does. Ian can’t do what I do, etc. We all work together, check each other, and trust each other. Despite the fact that words like ‘performativity’ and ‘racism’ exist in my discipline and probably don’t even enter the lexicon of Joseph and Ian’s disciplines, we are able to come together and create something really exciting and meaningful.

What about your field of environmental sociology do you think would surprise people the most?

That sociology is a science at all. People often think of “science” as a laboratory activity and a place where smart people in white coats work in a controlled setting. My science is the science of society; I use a scientific method (and lots and lots of data!) to study the questions I am interested in.

And now for your James Lipton moment: What’s your favorite science word?

Probably “charismatic megafauna.”

What’s your least favorite science word?

Definitely something like “fecal.”

If you could save one thing from your burning office, what would it be?

My knee-jerk reaction would be to grab this picture (above) I have taped to my office wall. It’s of most of the people in my field. It’s a small group—we all fit in one picture. It was taken at maybe the last big gathering that my late mentor, Bill Freudenburg, attended—it was a celebration of his work and his life. All his friends showed up in Santa Barbara, and he was totally in his element. It was a day to focus on his life and work, rather than the cancer he was then fighting. He really changed my life and my thinking—although I’m on my own now, everything I write comes from some place within me that he helped create. I like having the photo because it reminds me of that day and of the community that I’m part of.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

It took me a long time to find this profession, and I’m happy doing what I do. But if I could be anything, and it could really happen, I’d want to be a pro athlete.

What kind of athlete?

A really awesome one.

Learn more about Mary by visiting her profile here.

About SESYNC

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, Maryland, SESYNC is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems. We foster collaboration amongst scholars from a diverse array of the natural and social sciences (such as anthropology, ecology, geography, public health, and political science), as well as stakeholders that include resource managers, policy makers, and community members.

Socio-environmental synthesis is a research approach that accelerates the production of knowledge about the complex interactions between human and natural systems by distilling data, ideas, theories, or methods. Synthesis may involve the development or application of models or the integration of methods from different disciplines to define new approaches or research directions. It may also involve critical analysis to evaluate arguments or interpret evidence, from the highly quantitative (data sets) to the highly qualitative (oral histories).

Click here to learn more about SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

A New Climate for Grazing Livestock

May 7, 2014

by LISA PALMER
Science Communication Fellow

In Colombia, Juan Valdez is a bit player. The real issue is cattle ranching. Cattle occupy 80 percent of agricultural land in Colombia. Their pastures have contributed to soil degradation, deforestation, and, in dry areas, have hastened desertification. Now, fascinating research is being done to validate the link between intensive silvo-pastoral systems and environmental resiliency. If you think pastures and forests can’t coexist, don’t miss my story, “A new climate for grazing livestock,” published in the May issue of Nature Climate Change.

Here’s how the story begins:

"For cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina, growing trees in his pastures while raising cows has boosted his income and restored the degraded soil. Over the past 20 years, he has been replacing his 130 hectares of grasslands in southwestern Colombia with special varieties of leguminous trees, shrubs and grasses. The plants provide dense layers of food for grazing, doubling the milk and meat production per hectare while reducing the amount of land needed to raise the cattle.

Molina’s move to agroforestry is part of a global trend to sustainably improve agricultural production on each hectare while reducing the need for chemicals and fertilizers. Agroforestry is a science-based method for cultivating trees alongside food crops or livestock, while farmers make use of the trees’ ecological and economic benefits. Across Colombia, cattle ranchers are making the switch1. Conventional treeless pastures are slowly becoming forested, creating intensive ‘silvo-pastoral’ systems that don’t use chemicals and fertilizers but increase biodiversity and resilience to climate change. It is part of an ambitious programme to boost farmers’ incomes while restoring forests and soil fertility."

For the complete story, go to Nature Climate Change.

Infectious Disease & the Persistence of Poverty

April 23, 2014


Above photo courtesy PIVOT

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

We live in an era of staggering technological advancements accompanied by unprecedented economic prosperity. At the same time, however, about one in six people throughout the world live in extreme poverty, often defined as the equivalent of $1.25 (USD) or less of income per person per day. Many of the extremely poor die from infectious diseases, which were responsible for the needless deaths of more than 8.7 million people worldwide in 2008 alone.

Needless, because almost all of these diseases are treatable and/or preventable. It’s a fact not lost on economist and ecologist Dr. Matthew Bonds, who has spent extensive time in Rwanda and Madagascar investigating the ecology of poverty and disease.

Bonds, Research Associate at Harvard Medical School and Executive Director of the non-profit PIVOT, combines theoretical frameworks and field-based data collection with practical efforts to improve healthcare delivery. His research interests are in the relationships among ecology, infectious diseases, and economic development, with an applied focus on the role of healthcare in promoting economic growth in areas of extreme poverty. His work is driven by a collection of not-so-simple questions such as: Where do infectious diseases come from, and how are they transmitted? How are subsistence agriculture livelihoods connected to the immediate biological environment? What are the barriers to economic development?

Got all that? Good. Now, how do you apply that knowledge to inform healthcare delivery?

Bonds is co-Principal Investigator (PI) on a SESYNC project that is attempting to tackle some of these complex questions through the lens of land use change. Land conversion and agriculture have immediate, direct economic benefits to people, the PIs say, but by altering the ecological conditions for pathogens, there may also be negative, indirect effects on human health.


Above photo: Matt Bonds (back center, yellow shirt) and the rest of the SESYNC project participants during their February 2014 meeting.

Bonds’ role in the project is to develop a broad framework for building mathematical models that include the dynamics of land use change, infectious diseases, and economics. The models will help the group understand how these components interact and the ways in which they may create “poverty traps”—i.e., self-reinforcing mechanisms that cause poverty to persist.

But Bonds acknowledges that theoretical work is a first, not final, step. “People like me,” he says, “get highly processed through a US-based higher education system. We take lots of courses and read lots of papers, we place problems on the table in a way that sounds really coherent, and we come up with theories. But do those theories actually play out? We can write it down, but is it true?

“In biology, you would never try to become an expert in tropical rainforests without spending a lot of time in tropical rainforests. Yet the reality is, most economists spend a lot of time thinking and writing about poverty and economic development without spending any real time in those areas. The biggest challenge of this work is getting out into the field, spending an enormous amount of time in environments of extreme poverty, and developing a research agenda within the context that those people are living.”

Bonds and the other PIs are connecting the theoretical components of their SESYNC project to actual on-the-ground work—specifically, they’re using the models Bonds is helping build to inform current data collection, as well as to draft proposals for future large-scale and long-term data collection in Madagascar and other areas. The group hopes to use this data to gain a genuine understanding of the role of land use change on infectious diseases, and the role of both land use change and infectious diseases simultaneously on cycles of poverty.

This research provides very real and very direct support to organizations such as PIVOT, whose mission is to combine comprehensive and accessible healthcare services with scientific research on poverty and disease so as to strengthen those healthcare services for the people who need them.

“The challenge we’re trying to tackle very directly is to put the health system and people working within the health system—people who run hospitals and health centers in areas of poverty—consistently in the same room with natural scientists and biologists,” says Bonds. “As researchers, our charge is to be part of the solution by producing information and knowledge in a way that doesn’t do injustice to that fact that people are having immediate, real-world crises.”

Further Reading

Bonds MH, Dobson AP, Keenan DC (2012) Disease Ecology, Biodiversity, and the Latitudinal Gradient in Income. PLoS Biol 10(12): e1001456. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001456

Ngonghala CN, Pluciński MM, Murray MB, Farmer PE, Barrett CB, et al. (2014) Poverty, Disease, and the Ecology of Complex Systems. PLoS Biol 12(4): e1001827. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001827

Chase J (2012) Which Came First: Burden of Infectious Disease or Poverty? PLoS Biol 10(12): e1001457. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001457

Protecting Predators, Protecting People

April 17, 2014

by NEIL CARTER
Postdoctoral Fellow

Above photo: Neil presenting his work in Leipzig, Germany

Large carnivores, such as wolves, bears, and tigers, play many vital roles in our lives. For example, they help maintain resilient ecosystems by regulating hoofed mammal populations (including elk, moose, and zebra) that, if left unchecked, can grow quickly, devastate important plant and tree species, and damage crop fields. Many cultures also have long traditions of hunting large carnivores for fur or as trophies, with myths and stories about the power and grace of these animals reinforcing human–carnivore relationships. Among some cultures in South Asia, large carnivores can serve as vessels for the souls of one’s ancestors. When I was in Nepal for my PhD research, I would see people leave small gifts at animal altars, often symbolizing tigers, to help ensure safe passage through the forests.


Above photo: In Nepal, Neil used camera trapping images such as this one to understand tigers' behavior. Click here to learn more.

On the other hand, predators can threaten human property, livelihoods, and safety. For example, bears occasionally damage orchards, wolves sometimes eat sheep, and tigers can kill people (albeit rarely). But even non-fatal tiger attacks have lasting detrimental effects: In Nepal, I met a man who had survived a tiger attack in the forest, but afterwards began to drink heavily after losing his job as a forest guard and racked up massive hospital bills. We have learned from history that carnivore populations can be quickly and dramatically reduced if local people no longer tolerate their impacts. Most large carnivores now inhabit small fragments of the ranges they once used to roam, largely because of concerted efforts over time by people to remove those animals from human-settled areas.

An important question that emerges then is: can people sustainably coexist with large carnivores, despite a long history of competition for limited resources, such as food and space? What does coexistence even mean precisely? Does it mean letting carnivores only inhabit protected areas set aside from human settlement or development, and thus less likely to negatively impact people? Does it mean finding ways to have carnivores share space with people, despite the likelihood of carnivore-related impacts? Or perhaps a mixture of both approaches depending on context? These questions are difficult to answer, because the relationships between people, carnivores, and the environment are complex and ever-changing.

Fortunately, there are some tools that are useful in exploring these questions.

Agent-based models (ABM) comprise rules for the ways agents (e.g., individual carnivores, individual people) interact with each other and their environment. In this way, ABMs simulate important individual behaviors, like searching for and acquiring food, territories, or mates, that give rise to broad-scale patterns, such as changes in population size. These models can be used to evaluate the potential outcomes of different scenarios on both people and carnivores, and therefore help to inform decision makers in the face of uncertainty. They can help answer, for instance, how certain policies—like handing over management responsibilities of a forest tract to local communities—will change human access to forest products and prey numbers for carnivores while also influencing human hunting of carnivores and carnivore attacks on people. For these reasons, I’m developing an ABM to simulate the interactions between subsistence farmers and the globally-endangered tiger in and around Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, a global biodiversity hotspot. Conservation challenges in Chitwan epitomize those in many places around the world, where reconciling the needs of growing resource-dependent human populations with the desire to protect carnivores is of utmost importance.

Developing a good ABM is no easy task. It requires some programming skills and, more importantly, a clear understanding of how key behaviors and interactions should be best programmed in the model. I recently traveled to the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, to seek the aid of Dr. Volker Grimm, an ecological modeling guru. SESYNC recently partnered with UFZ to develop a new Theme titled “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,” so the timing of my visit was serendipitous. For two weeks in February, Volker spent many hours with me in thinking about the ways to structure the model so that it captures fundamental relationships between tigers and people, such as human impacts on prey and tigers encountering people. The model will therefore provide insights on how to foster human–carnivore coexistence not only in Chitwan, but also in many other places around the world facing similar conservation challenges. I was also fortunate enough to interact with and present my research progress to other scholars at the Centre for Ecological Modelling at UFZ. These scholars are doing top-notch work, and eagerly provided me with valuable input to improve the ABM. For this and many other reasons, my time at UFZ was tremendously rewarding.


Above photo: Neil and Volker Grimm in Leipzig, Germany

My travels and experiences didn’t end at Leipzig, though. I next headed to the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) in Trondheim, Norway. There I met with Dr. John Linnell, an expert on the science and practice of carnivore conservation in human-dominated regions around the world. I was keen to pick his brain about what coexistence means from a practical “on-the-ground” point of view. For example, how do managers protect a viable population of a large carnivore that spans a vast region, where some people wish to eliminate the animals at all costs while others with to protect them at all costs? Hint: having decision-making processes that ensure bottom–up representation and participation of various stakeholders is very important. My experiences in both Leipzig and Trondheim helped me build the model and think on how to make it relevant to fostering coexistence across many contexts. At the end of my time in Trondheim, John and I had begun developing a clear, consistent, and comprehensive conceptualization of coexistence. (John also made me moose stew—which was a first for me!)

Though much work remains, my knowledge exchange in Europe has gotten me closer to answering those difficult questions about coexistence. One point made clear is that coexistence is as much about human–human interactions as it is human–carnivore interactions. Moreover, understanding the role of human psychology, ethics, and institutions in carnivore conservation is vital to fostering coexistence. Finally, coexistence requires mutual adaptations by both carnivores and humans and by humans and humans. The next stage for me is to explicitly incorporate these insights on human–carnivore coexistence into a model that advances socio-environment synthesis science and is useful to conservation practitioners and decision makers.


Above photo: Neil and John Linnell in Trondheim, Norway

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Influenza Transmission and the Built Environment

April 8, 2014

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

It’s late January, and you’ve just arrived at the office. That chatty, suspiciously cheery coworker of yours has you cornered by the coffee machine. It’s first thing in the morning, so your escape reflexes are muted. How was your weekend?, he wants to know. His was great. He was at the hockey game. His team won. But it was cold, he forget to wear gloves, and now he’s not feeling so well.

And then … it happens. He sneezes.

Welcome to flu season.

Many experts think that influenza, commonly referred to as “the flu,” is spread by large-particle droplets made when infected persons talk, cough, or sneeze. These droplets don’t remain suspended in the air, so in order for the virus to spread, close contact between source (e.g., your gabby coworker) and recipient (e.g., you) is required. Droplet transmission begets the recommendations of “cover your mouth” and “wash your hands.” But is that really enough to curb the spread of influenza?

Depending on who you ask, it’s a good start—but not nearly enough. Some researchers disagree that droplet transmission is the only, or even primary, means of passing the flu from one person to another. These experts stress the significance of airborne transmission: small droplets or dust particles containing the flu virus that remain suspended in the air, and can therefore be dispersed widely by air currents.

Yet without consensus on the respective roles of droplet and airborne transmission, it’s difficult to design comprehensive and consistent protocols for flu prevention. That’s a concern, says Dr. Donald Milton, Professor of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, for obvious reasons. He notes that despite evidence supporting airborne transmission’s role in spreading the flu, planning for airborne precautions has been ineffective—because we don’t actually agree that it needs to be done in the first place.

“Right now,” Dr. Milton says, “in the case of an influenza pandemic, day cares, public schools, and universities plan to shut down and send everybody home. That’s a huge disruption with significant economic impacts and questionable effectiveness. And where do kids go when you shut down the schools? They hang out in malls. Does that really buy you any protection?”

A primary goal of airborne precautions, he says, is to make schools, malls, and all other buildings safe places to be during a pandemic, to the benefit of both public health and the local economy. How? The right ventilation system can actually reduce rates of airborne illnesses, including the flu. It’s this goal that served as an impetus for a recent workshop hosted at SESYNC focused on how we design, build, operate, and maintain built facilities from a pandemic perspective.

Led by Dr. Milton and co-principal investigator Dr. Jelena Srebric, Professor of the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, the workshop brought together a diverse community of experts thinking about and working on questions related to flu transmission. Participants included a biostatistician investigating non-pharmaceutical interventions for reducing influenza transmission. The director of a university health center. A medical anthropologist studying the relationships between the everyday lived experiences of individuals and communities and the biopolitics of global health institutions. The director of a federal research grant program. A top administrator from university residential facilities. The director of a federal program focused on occupational health and infection control challenges. A computer scientist researching algorithms in networking phenomena. An engineer focused on multi-scale modeling of built infrastructure and assessing how these systems affect energy consumption.

Along with 30 other workshop attendees, these experts comprised a mosaic of perspectives uniquely positioned to investigate the question of influenza transmission and the built environment. A key effort of the workshop included synthesizing existing studies that point toward the big role of small droplet transmission (and by virtue, of ventilation systems) in the spread of influenza. Despite these studies, we don’t have a body of work that convinces everyone. Part of the group’s challenge, therefore, was to determine what it would take to reframe our perceptions of transmission.

Spoiler: it’s not going to be easy, particularly given the breadth of communities to be reached. Researchers, funding agencies, decision makers, and engineers are all integral to prioritizing pandemic preparedness in facilities planning.

“Even though building ventilation systems are known to increase or reduce an individual’s risk of influenza exposure,” says Dr. Srebric, “that factor is largely ignored in practice. It’s like a non-existent problem, or at least we [engineers] think the problem doesn’t belong to us, because we’re not obligated by standards or codes to consider it as relevant.”

Fueled by the conversations and insights of the workshop, the group is developing a white paper that describes the current climate, as well as research necessary to move the needle toward healthy and sustainable buildings. The paper will be an interdisciplinary effort that integrates fundamental research needed to identify the principle mode of transmission, as well as applied research needed to design these buildings.

“Thanks to the truly wonderful combination of people and expertise we have working on this project,” Dr. Milton says, “we can get at this problem better than anybody else.”

Learn more about the workshop here.

This workshop was funded under a call for proposals targeting University of Maryland (UMD) faculty. The call was co-supported by the university’s Office of the Provost, the Division of Research, and the deans of multiple colleges (CMNS, AGNR, BSOS, ARHU, ENGR, and JOUR).

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