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.

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.

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, 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

What We're Reading

October 18, 2013

“We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn.”
                                                   ― Mary Catherine Bateson, anthropologist

Here's what we've been sticking our noses in lately (click the titles for links to the resources):

  
The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability

Authors: Camilo Mora, Abby G. Frazier, Ryan J. Longman, et al.
Source: Nature
Who’s reading it: Margaret Palmer, Executive Director

  
Interviewing for an interdisciplinary job: principled goals, pragmatic outcomes, and finding the right fit in academia

Authors: Susan G. Clark and Toddi A. Steelman
Source: Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences
Who’s reading it: Margaret Palmer, Executive Director

  
The origins and conceptualizations of 'triple-loop' learning: A critical review

Authors: Paul Tosey, Max Visser, and Mark NK Saunders
Source: Management Learning
Who’s reading it: Jonathan Kramer, Director for Interdisciplinary Science

  
Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

Author: Eileen Pollack
Source: The New York Times Magazine
Who’s reading it: Amanda Grimes, Director of Administration and External Affairs

  
Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology

Author: John Bellamy Foster
Source: American Journal of Sociology
Who’s reading it: Harish Padmanabha, Postdoctoral Fellow

  
Benefits, costs, and livelihood implications of a regional payment for ecosystem service program

Authors: Hua Zheng, Brian E. Robinson, Yi-Cheng Liang, et al.
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
Who's reading it: William Burnside, Postdoctoral Fellow

  
Moose Die-Off Alarms Scientists

Author: Jim Robbins
Source: The New York Times
Who's reading it: Drew Gerkey, Postdoctoral Fellow

  
The Elusive Pursuit of Interdisciplinarity at the Human–Environment Interface

Authors: Eric D. Roy, Anita T. Morzillo, Francisco Seijo, et al.
Source: BioScience
Who’s reading it: Cynthia Wei, Assistant Director of Education and Outreach

  
The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

Author: James Gleick
Publisher: Vintage
Who’s reading it: Mike Smorul, Assistant Director of Computer Services

  
Windows 8.1 Review: Little Changes Make a Big Difference

Author: Eric Limer
Source: Gizmodo
Who’s reading it: Travis Burrell, Systems Administrator

  
The Fossil Fuels War

Author: John Bellamy Foster
Source: Monthly Review
Who's reading it: Jessica Marx, Research Program Manager

  
How Much Compensation is Enough? A Framework for Incorporating Uncertainty and Time Discounting When Calculating Offset Ratios for Impacted Habitat

Authors: Atte Moilanen, Astrid J. A. van Teeffelen, Yakov Ben-Haim, and Simon Ferrier
Source: Restoration Ecology
Who’s reading it: Kelly Hondula, Research Assistant

  
Comparing the Extent and Permanence of Headwater Streams From Two Field Surveys to Values From Hydrographic Databases and Maps

Authors: Ken M. Fritz, Elisabeth Hagenbuch, Ellen D’Amico, et al.
Source: JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association
Who’s reading it: Steve Epting, Graduate Research Assistant

  
The Geology of Media

Author: Jussi Parikka
Source: The Atlantic
Who’s reading it: Melissa Andreychek, Communications Coordinator

  
Photo: Alex E. Proimos, Flickr/Creative Commons

What We're Reading archive:
9-24-2013

Smart Infrastructure: Putting the Green in Stormwater Management

October 7, 2013

by MARY COLLINS
Postdoctoral Fellow

and MARY SHELLEY
Assistant Director for Computational Synthesis

Imagine a scientific endeavor that takes place in a laboratory—but not one of those labs with white coats and silent concentration. In our laboratory, we replace white coats with white boards, flip charts, and a box of washable markers large enough to make any kindergartener giddy; replace silent concentration with three days of constant interaction that makes the room sound more like a tuning orchestra than a formulaic meeting.

This scene is not an unusual one at SESYNC, but a recent meeting of the Role of Green Infrastructure Venture brought together an especially diverse set of participants to tackle especially ambitious goals. The project’s overarching purpose is two-fold: to understand what role green infrastructure can play in improving stormwater management and ecosystem service delivery and, simultaneously, to test a process for engaging scientists in sustainable software development as they apply and develop tools to address these issues.

Our first task was to hone in on a shared idea of what is meant by “green infrastructure” and to envision where each of the 25 participants—including hydrologists, ecologists, city managers, governance scholars, software engineers, and nonprofit program directors—fit into the picture. Many of our supported science teams at SESYNC use the process of conceptual diagramming to facilitate the challenging work of integrating the wide range of transdisciplinary perspectives of their participants. It’s important for each participant to externalize (i.e., get on paper) their conception of the systems being discussed so that they can identify and discuss commonalities and differences in the approaches they bring to a problem. To kick off this activity, the principal investigators (PIs) discussed their shared conception, then each participant was asked to place a pre-printed picture of themselves on the diagram to indicate where they saw their research interest or professional role fitting into the diagram the PIs had crafted. Over lunch, participants used giant sticky notes and lots of markers to create their own individual conceptual frameworks of green infrastructure, which were then used in discussions throughout the course of the three-day meeting, and eventually distilled and integrated into a larger framework.

We heard from practitioners and managers from five cities around the country who each told their city’s story of stormwater management and the potential of green infrastructure to deliver that service and more. Although each local context is unique, they all need metrics (ultimately in dollars and cents) to show that green infrastructure works for stormwater management and other critical city services, and that it is thus worth the investment.

Each researcher then gave a short presentation on their current work and how it relates to green infrastructure. It turns out we do many things across the wide sustainability spectrum—from server-style data management to field infrastructure design, biophysical evaluation to institutional arrangements, and issues of equity to general access. It was exciting to watch experts from so many diverse areas come together to frame big issues around green infrastructure and develop a plan to tackle them. No matter how great our disciplinary differences may be, we all contribute to what a real green infrastructure conception is—one that we hope will inform our research questions, generate needed solutions, and push our understanding as scientists.

Through moments of frustration, exhaustion, and more and more questions, what we can say is that everyone is ready to work together on a shared venture towards solution-focused green infrastructure research.

This Venture seeks in part to prototype a process conceived by the PIs as part of an NSF S2I2 conceptualization award for a Water Science Software Institute, which aims to address software development and sustainability needs of the water science community.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

What We're Reading

September 24, 2013

We don’t always have our noses in journals, but when we do, we like to tell you about it. Here are some of things we’ve recently enjoyed reading.
  

Framing Sustainability in a Telecoupled World

Authors: Jianguo Liu, Vanessa Hull, Mateus Batistella, et al.
Source: Ecology and Society
Who’s reading it: Julio Postigo, Postdoctoral Fellow
  

Challenges and opportunities in mapping land use intensity globally

Authors: Tobias Kuemmerle, Karlheinz Erb, Patrick Meyfroidt, et al.
Source: Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability
Who’s reading it: Nicholas Magliocca, Research Associate
  

Increased River Alkalinization in the Eastern U.S.

Authors: Sujay S. Kaushal, Gene E. Likens, Ryan M. Utz, et al.
Source: Environmental Science and Technology
Who’s reading it: Kelly Hondula, Research Assistant
  

Dietary Report Card Disappoints 

Author: Jane E. Brody
Source: The New York Times
Who’s reading it: William Burnside, Postdoctoral Fellow 
   

An ontological crisis? A review of large felid conservation in India 

Authors: Sunetro Ghosal, Vidya R. Athreya, John D. C. Linnell, and Pal Olav Vedeld
Source: Biodiversity and Conservation
Who’s reading it: Neil Carter, Postdoctoral Fellow
   

Drawing to Learn in Science

Authors: Shaaron Ainsworth, Vaughan Prain, and Russell Tytler
Source: Science
Who’s reading it: Cynthia Wei, Assistant Director, Education and Outreach
  

Biggest Polluters In U.S. Ranked By Greenhouse Gas Emissions In New Report 

Author: Kate Sheppard
Source: Huffington Post
Who’s reading it: Mary Collins, Postdoctoral Fellow 
   

The evolutionary and ecological roots of human social organization 

Authors: Hillard S. Kaplan, Paul L. Hooper, and Michael Gurven
Source: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B
Who’s reading it: Harish Padmanabha, Postdoctoral Fellow
   

Introducing data–model assimilation to students of ecology

Authors: N. Thompson Hobbs and Kiona Ogle
Source: Ecological Applications
Who’s reading it: Mary Shelley, Assistant Director for Computational Synthesis 
   

How to Eat a Triceratops

Author: Matt Kaplan
Source: Nature
Who’s reading it: Melissa Andreychek, Communications Coordinator 
  

Photo: Anna Creech, Creative Commons

SESYNC Word on the Street: Wicked Problems

September 23, 2013

Are you a scientist preparing for a conference presentation? Writing a blog post? Giving a media interview? David Dobbs, a science writer and blogger of Neuron Culture, has some advice for you: “Hunt down jargon and kill it.” [1]

Scientists sometimes take specialized terminology, core to the research that they do, for granted. While the use of such “trade language” can make communication between issue specialists more efficient, it can make communication with audiences outside of those niches—including scientists in other specializations—less clear and less productive.

We wanted to pull back the veil from some scientific terms that we use at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). So today, we took to the streets to see how many people know what “wicked problems” means.

Watch the video below:

Word on the Street archive:
Epistemology

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

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SESYNC Feedbacks: News from the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center

September 19, 2013

Welcome, friends and colleagues! We're excited to share our inaugural e-newsletter with you and hope you find it a useful source of information that you share with your contacts.

We want to ensure we provide you with content you find engaging and relevant. Please take a moment to complete this survey about your e-newsletter preferences.

Socio-environmental Synthesis? Yeah, We’ve Got an RFP for That

Great ideas need support—SESYNC honors this need by offering a variety of integrated, socio-environmental synthesis programs. The structure of these programs allows us to make advances in areas of national and international priority while still accommodating the need for innovation and knowledge generation around emerging problems or opportunities. Each program also encourages links to policy and actionable outcomes.

So, you want RFPs? We’ve got three:

  • For scholars interested in critical questions at the interface of biodiversity and ecosystem services, funding is available for up to six collaborative synthesis projects that bring together data, ideas, theories, or models that investigate a pressing environmental issue involving complex human-nature interactions and global change. Proposals are due October 9, 2013.
      
  • For graduate students interested in the complex interactions between human and natural systems, we will be hosting a Socio-Environmental Synthesis Research Proposal Writing Workshop that will provide participants with:
    • introductions to SESYNC, socio-environmental synthesis research, team science, and actionable science;
    • networking opportunities to build professional relationships with other students, particularly those from different disciplines; and
    • training sessions on the methods, challenges, and strategies associated with writing successful proposals, especially those related to the type of work SESYNC supports.
      Applications are due October 11, 2013.
  • For University of Maryland faculty, funding is available for innovative interdisciplinary workshops that bring together scholars from diverse disciplines to inspire novel research that focuses on topics related to the interdependency between humans and the natural environment. Proposals are due November 1, 2013.

Food for Thought

This fall, we’ve invited leading scholars in the fields of wildlife biology, applied mathematics, social anthropology, and beyond to SESYNC for our brown bag seminar series. Bring a lunch and an open mind and join us at our Annapolis facilities for these unique science conversations.

Click here for a listing of our seminars, which begin at 12:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public.


Image: Ana Luisa Ahern, Creative Commons

Is a Fish Saved a Forest Lost?

What are the unintended consequences of closing off large marine areas to fishing? It’s a question leading SESYNC scholars have a lot to say about. We interviewed Drs. Ray Hilborn, Taylor Ricketts, and Brendan Fisher about the global implications of marine protected areas (MPAs)—you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Have a response you want to share with us? Email it to news@sesync.org

Epistem ... what?

Earlier this year, Alan Alda—an award-winning film and television star, as well as a founder and visiting professor of journalism at the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science—told participants at a workshop hosted at Cornell University to ease up on the jargon when communicating science to the public. Scientists sometimes take specialized terminology, core to the research that they do, for granted. While the use of such “trade language” can make communication between issue specialists more efficient, it can make communication with audiences outside of those niches—including scientists in other specializations—less clear and less productive.

We wanted to pull back the veil from some scientific terms that we use at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). So today, we took to the streets to see how many people know what “epistemology” means.

Watch the video below:

Don’t Miss a Thing

Sign up for emails from SESYNC at www.sesync.org/contact-us

Should Ecology be More Like a Smartphone?

September 17, 2013

by KELLY HONDULA
Research Assistant

A recent article in Wired magazine about user interface design (“Why a New Golden Age for UI Design is Around the Corner”) captured my attention by describing the proliferation of smart technology and wearable computers, such as Google Glass, as an “ecosystem” of devices. As both an ecologist and a lover of words, I couldn’t help but dissect this metaphor—how could something so artificial be comparable to the natural world?

What makes this metaphor work is that it is about the interactions between each piece of technology—instead of species and energy or nutrients, computers are tracking data and sharing information. Primary producers “create” data by recording GPS signals, your voice or text messages, or information about the external world in your smartphone or other device. That data is recorded in a way that can then be shared with other devices across time and space, to the consumers of that information—your friends, a colleague, or you at some point in the future. The network even evolves over time when a new generation of products is released. Version 2.0 keeps and improves upon the best components of the previous product while adding new features.

I recently spent a week thinking about ecosystems—albeit of a very different nature—at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference. Ecologists devote a lot of time to understanding the complexity and value of ecosystems by studying the way biological communities interact with each other and with their physical surroundings. Many of the motivations and procedures for research, however, are motivated and influenced by society. Therefore, it should be no surprise that one theme that emerged from the meeting was the need to study ecological systems from social perspectives—there was even an entire session devoted to the role of philosophy in ecology. How and why ecologists study natural systems have much to contribute to and gain from other disciplines, especially the social sciences. Ecology, therefore, is one component of an interacting community of disciplines—an academic ecosystem.

Whereas the ecosystem of devices that gather and share information about our lives is built for compatibility and interaction, the network of academic disciplines is rife with jargon, disciplinary silos, and irreconcilable assumptions. These disciplines should be “compatible” with each other so that they can share information and knowledge, and in the process add value to each other. After all, the “primary producer” of data in the technological system adds value when it shares information across platforms. It’s neat for a “smart” refrigerator to be able to count how many eggs you have and display that information on the door—it’s useful for the fridge to give you that information on your smartphone, while you’re at the grocery store.

The communication network between these devices requires them to share information, speak the same language, and perceive the same information from many different perspectives. These are the same challenges of compatibility facing discipline-bound academics. A “smart” academic ecosystem would be where developments, or primary production, in each discipline have the potential to be leveraged by consumers in other disciplines who study the same phenomenon. Each discipline would be like a new device that can communicate the data it senses or records across platforms: in other words, “smart.”

Photo: Dave Lawler, Creative Commons

Audience: 

Conservation Trade-offs: A Continued Conversation with SESYNC Scholars

September 16, 2013

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The following is the second in a two-part conversation facilitated between leading scholars affiliated with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). To read part one, click here.

Dr. Ray Hilborn: he’s kind of a big deal. People know him. So when we read his shrewdly-written opinion piece published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), we knew it would generate much interest amongst SESYNC scholars and those concerned with the complex interactions between humans and the ecosystems in which they live. (We were right.)

SESYNC-funded scientists Dr. Taylor Ricketts and Dr. Brendan Fisher recently offered a few responses to Dr. Hilborn’s insights into the “Environmental cost of conservation victories”—among them:

  • the notions that the implications of any conservation action are global, not just local, and that the linkages between terrestrial and marine systems in relation to food security aren’t often thought of in marine research are right on the ball; but
  • possible shocks to the world’s fisheries as a result of marine protected area (MPA) governance efforts are not actually as worrying as the opinion piece suggests.

I asked Dr. Hilborn for some closing thoughts on the global implications of MPAs, as well as on my dialogue with Drs. Ricketts and Fisher. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Melissa: Dr. Hilborn, thanks so much for taking the time to read over and respond to Taylor and Brendan’s feedback. Do you have any general comments?

Dr. Hilborn: Well, we’re in basic agreement that the marine conservation realm needs to widen its scope when assessing MPAs. Historically, studies have evaluated impacts on purely ecological elements such as biodiversity. But the interaction between MPAs and impacts elsewhere is not considered when the benefits of large marine closures are praised. What I’m saying with this paper is that in addition to biodiversity, and protections for marine landscapes, there are other, equally significant issues at stake—among them, food production.

Melissa: Taylor and Brendan raise two major questions in response to your opinion piece: one of them is spillover, or the capability of a community to “make up” for lost fishery yield by harvesting from the boundaries of an MPA. Would you say this is a fair point?

Dr. Hilborn: I’ll agree that the occurrence of MPA spillover does allow for stability in some local seafood production. But I’m talking specifically about large marine closures, and the concept of viable spillover is effectively limited to MPAs that are comparatively small, or to communities located on the perimeter of those regions. What about MPAs that are 2–8 times the size of California? My paper mentions Australia’s no-take area of 3.1 million square kilometers in the Coral Sea—that size is significant. That size does not lend itself to convenient mediation by boundary fishing for all affected communities. That’s the size that is most likely to result in the issues of alternative food production I’m describing.

The other important issue here is that many of these large MPAs are obviously in parts of the world where fisheries are well managed. When we do see a resultant reliance on surrogate sources of fish, those sources will almost always be from parts of the world where fisheries are poorly managed, such as Thailand, China, and Vietnam, and from aquaculture. It’s sort of a contagion effect: efforts to provide ecological protection in one area may actually give rise to intensified ecological degradation elsewhere.

Melissa: The other question Taylor and Brendan raise is related to social cost-benefit: that when we evaluate MPAs, we have to look at the “big picture,” not just one qualifier—in the case of your opinion piece, food production.

Dr. Hilborn: Again, the assertion here is quite reasonable and not dissimilar from what I’m saying in my paper. I’d emphasize that one piece of the puzzle, and a hugely important one, is an assessment of an MPA’s implications for food supplies. As I’ve written, the information on trade and environmental consequences of alternative food production is now available to calculate these trade-offs, but it’s just not currently being done. We can’t argue that comprehensive cost-benefit analyses are being conducted if we’re not taking a close look at the effect closing large portions of the ocean has on actions such as forest clear-cutting, pesticide application, water scarcity as a result of increased irrigation, and other agriculturally-related practices. We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of MPAs on our food production activities.

Melissa: For those interested in this subject, where should they go to learn more?

Dr. Hilborn: The new book The Perfect Protein gets into some of this conversation. They could also look into some of my lectures on YouTube. (Editor's note: One example is embedded below.)

That said, due to a lack of research on the subject, I’d encourage scholars to look at centers like SESYNC and NCEAS for opportunities to pursue this type of transdisciplinary synthesis study on marine conservation and food-based systems. These are questions worth answering.

Dr. Ray Hilborn is a former member of SESYNC’s External Advisory Board and a Professor of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington.

Top photo: Brian Hoffman, Flickr/Creative Commons

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