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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.

What We're Reading

October 16, 2014

"Scientific knowledge is in perpetual evolution; it finds itself changed from one day to the next."

— Jean Piaget, developmental psychologist and philosopher

Reading is a critical part of conceiving of and executing a successful synthesis effort. The following is a current snapshot of what just a few SESYNC researchers and staff have been reading—we hope you find a resource or two that's of particular interest and/or utility.


A critique of the ‘novel ecosystem’ concept

Authors: Carolina Murcia, James Aronson, Gustavo H. Kattan, et al.
Source: Trends in Ecology & Evolution
Who's reading it: Neil Carter, Postdoctoral Fellow

Informed actions: where to cost effectively manage multiple threats to species to maximize return on investment

Authors: Nancy A. Auerbach, Ayesha I. T. Tulloch, and Hugh P. Possingham
Source: Ecological Applications
Who's reading it: Judy Che-Castaldo, Postdoctoral Fellow

Food security implications of global marine catch losses due to overfishing

Authors: U. Thara Srinivasan, William W. L. Cheung, Reg Watson, and U. Rashid Sumaila
Source: Journal of Bioeconomics
Who's reading it: David Gill, Postdoctoral Fellow

Effects of distributed and centralized stormwater best management practices and land cover on urban stream hydrology at the catchment scale

Authors: J.V. Loperfido, Gregory B. Noe, S. Taylor Jarnagin, and Dianna M. Hogan
Source: Journal of Hydrology
Who's reading it: Kelly Hondula, Quantitative Programs Researcher

Perspectives on the Use of Green Infrastructure for Stormwater Management in Cleveland and Milwaukee

Authors: Melissa Keeley, Althea Koburger, David P. Dolowitz, et al.
Source: Environmental Management
Who's reading it: Kristina Hopkins, Postdoctoral Fellow

Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded

Author: Joshua Schimel
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Who's reading it: Matthew LaFevor, Postdoctoral Fellow

Don't blame the beetles

Author: Cally Carswell
Source: Science
Who's reading it: Mary Shelley, Associate Director of Synthesis

Why Academics Stink at Writing

Author: Steven Pinker
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Who's reading it: Cynthia Wei, Assistant Director of Education and Outreach

Global Human Footprint on the Linkage between Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning in Reef Fishes

Authors: Camilo Mora, Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, Arturo Ayala Bocos, et al.
Source: PLoS Biology
Who's reading it: Lauren Yeager, Postdoctoral Fellow

True Altruism: Can Humans Change To Save Other Species?

Author: Verlyn Klinkenborg
Source: Yale Environment 360
Who's reading it: Melissa Andreychek, Communications Coordinator

What We're Reading archive:

Photo courtesy Rich Grundy via Flickr/Creative Commons

Partnerships for Cyberinfrastructure: Collaboratively Building Capacity

October 15, 2014

Associate Director of Synthesis

Last week, IT staff members from five of the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s BIO centers held our second annual meeting to discuss common challenges and solutions across our programs. SESYNC’s Associate Director of Cyberinfrastructure, Mike Smorul, leads the effort under a supplemental grant from NSF to facilitate collaboration on cyberinfrastructure-related issues across the BIO centers and center-like programs. This year we met in East Lansing, Michigan at BEACON to discuss new developments (technological and otherwise) at our centers and to continue work on projects started during last year’s meeting hosted at SESYNC in Annapolis, Maryland.

The biggest outcome of our collaboration thus far has been the development of a two-day “Data Carpentry” technical training workshop based on the Software Carpentry model. During the past year, Tracy Teal, a microbial ecologist and bioinformatician at BEACON, has led an effort to develop a common curriculum for teaching members of the NSF BIO research community when and how to transition out of Excel into new tools for data storage and analysis that are more robust, effective, sustainable, and reproducible. To date, four Data Carpentry workshops have been held, one each at NESCent, SESYNC, iDigBio, and BEACON. Over the next year, we’ll focus on training additional workshop instructors within the BIO center community and on developing more domain-specific lessons. For example, iPlant, BEACON, and NESCent expressed interest in modules that use a genomics-based data set to teach the core tools of SQL, shell, and R.

Another highlight of this year’s meeting were useful insights from Karen Cranston, a computational phylogeneticist at NESCent, on planning for sustainability and longevity of the myriad valuable products developed over a center’s lifetime. Unfortunately, NESCent is scheduled to close next summer, but thanks to the foresight and efforts of Karen and her colleagues, many of the datasets and tools developed during its existence will continue facilitating synthesis and discovery from other platforms and venues.

Welcome, SESYNC Postdoctoral Fellows!

September 25, 2014

From left to right: Kristina Hopkins, Matthew LaFevor, Jampel Dell’Angelo, and Lauren Yeager

Communications Coordinator

This fall, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) welcomes to Annapolis four new postdoctoral fellows who represent a diversity of impressive synthesis efforts. Their data-intensive postdoctoral projects, co-developed with SESYNC research collaborators from across the U.S. and Canada, were selected from 33 competitive proposals—and we are honored to have them join our research community!

Kristina Hopkins, PhD University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Kristina Hopkins is a hydrologist interested in urban impacts on aquatic ecosystems and sustainable stormwater management practices. At SESYNC, she will investigate how the historical evolution of city governance influences contemporary responses to stormwater challenges.

“My doctoral research was rooted in the physical sciences: looking at land use, topography, and how the physical environment constrains where water flows,” said Krissy. “For my postdoctoral project, I wanted to look more at the political and social side of urban stormwater management systems. Who’s in charge of various aspects of water management can differ greatly among cities: for example, in Pittsburgh, there are 83 different municipalities that all control a certain aspect of sewage infrastructure—it’s very complicated and complex. In other cities, there may be only one regulating entity. At SESYNC, I’ll be looking at how governing structures in four different cities shape stormwater policy reforms and trends in green infrastructure implementation.”

Many doctoral and postdoctoral programs are disciplinary, and scholars work alongside others with similar backgrounds and training. But SESYNC’s research priorities—focused on the complex problems that arise at the intersection of human and ecological systems—necessitate a diverse spectrum of scholars and perspectives. Accordingly, our postdoctoral fellows range from a human ecologist to a marine resource manager and a mathematical sociologist to a conservation biologist.

“I think it’s beneficial to be exposed to a breadth of expertise outside of your own,” Krissy said, “because there’s a lot you can learn from what other people are doing, even though their research may appear extraneous to your own. A simple conversation can lead to an insight that bolsters your project in unexpected ways.”

Krissy’s research collaborator is Dr. Nancy Grimm of Arizona State University.

Learn more about Krissy here.

Matthew LaFevor, PhD University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Matthew LaFevor is a human–environment geographer working in agriculture and conservation. At SESYNC, he will synthesize the diverse literature and extensive databases on global terracing projects from around the world into a broader methodological, conceptual, and spatial framework.

Explaining his interest in this project, Matt says: “I view agricultural systems as among the most complex of socio-environmental systems. Understanding them requires interdisciplinary thinking and, ultimately, collaborative research. Agricultural terracing is one of the most fascinating forms of hillslope modification and human use of the biophysical environment. People have been studying terracing for more than 50 years, but have focused almost exclusively on individual case studies. The SESYNC fellowship is giving me the time, facilities, and funding to sit down with these data and find some meaning in all of it—finding some trends and patterns in what works and what doesn’t. I hope what I find will help inform government policy, especially in Latin America, where new terraces are being built over vast swaths of land in an attempt to mitigate soil and water degradation or climate change. I’m not sure these programs are currently being carried out effectively.”

Matt was particularly drawn to the SESYNC fellowship’s emphasis on research partnerships. “When I saw SESYNC’s focus on collaboration, I thought, this is something I really need and want to do in order to be able to answer the types of complex questions that I’m interested in. My work is interdisciplinary, so it is good to be in an environment where people participate in and encourage interdisciplinary thinking, and where I can learn from those who specialize in theory and methods I need to better understand.”

Matt’s research collaborator is Dr. Alexandra Ponette-González of the University of North Texas.

Learn more about Matt here.

Jampel Dell’Angelo, PhD Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Sapienza Università di Roma

Dr. Jampel Dell’Angelo’s research centers on integrated assessments of environmental governance dynamics and socio-ecological conflicts. At SESYNC, he will investigate the interplay between institutions and extensive land acquisitions in social-ecological systems where water resources are limited, a phenomenon recently coined as “water grabbing.”

“The concept of water grabbing is extremely new and novel,” Jampel said. “It’s been treated as one dimension of land grabbing, but the basis for a systematic analysis of water grabbing been only very recently been formalized. Water grabbing is a global trend, and so a synthesis approach involving large amounts of data is likely to give foundational insight into the processes, patterns, and influences of this phenomenon.”

Jampel is particularly attracted to SESYNC’s emphasis on science that is actionable—i.e., science that can inform decisions at the government, business, and household levels; improve the design or implementation of public policies; and/or influence public and/or private sector strategies, planning, and norms that affect the environment.

“Researchers in resource management need to be flexible,” he said. “You may predefine a research agenda but later find that the stakeholders’ sense of a problem is quite different from an academic sense of that problem. If you want your research to have meaning outside of the ivory tower, and if you want it to be relevant and useful for the people on the ground, then involving the perspective of impacted communities is one of the most important things a researcher can do. Rhetorically, it’s easy. Practically, it can be a real challenge because of competing stakeholder interest and resultant conflict.”

Jampel’s research collaborator is Dr. Paolo D’Odorico of the University of Virginia.

Learn more about Jampel here.

Lauren Yeager, PhD Florida International University

Dr. Lauren Yeager is an ecologist interested in how environmental patterns and variation influence the structure and function of coastal marine communities. At SESYNC, she will examine how human disturbance affects the productivity and stability of fisheries stocks through changes in diversity, species distributions, and biophysical variables.

“Coral reefs are hyper-diverse, and they’re also one of the most threatened habitats in the world,” said Lauren. “As they experience more local and global environmental impacts, it becomes increasingly difficult—and important—to understand what contributes to their community structure and function, and what supports the various ecosystem services they provide. At SESYNC, I’ll be working toward quantifying human impacts to these communities, and in turn how those impacts affect the communities’ capacity to provision ecosystem services such as fisheries production.”

A data-driven postdoctoral fellowship at SESYNC is a logical next step in Lauren’s research career, she says, because “while field work is a great way to familiarize yourself with the details of one island, as in the case with coral reefs, it becomes logistically difficult to move beyond getting a really good understanding of that single system. To appreciate how multiple systems operate across regions or across the globe, you have to work at a larger scale. That becomes next to impossible if you’re collecting all the data, such as measurements on bathometric scope, sea surface temperature, structural complexity, the number of human residents, and what fish species are harvested, yourself. A synthesis approach enables you to answer questions you can’t answer with field work alone.”

Lauren’s research collaborators are Dr. Julia Baum of the University of Victoria and Dr. Jana McPherson of the Center for Conservation Research, Calgary Zoological Society.

Learn more about Lauren here.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center is funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Visit www.sesync.org for more information.
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Extracting the Excess, Fueling the Future

August 25, 2014

The Internship Program at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) provides undergraduate students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of socio-environmental issues. Interns spend the majority of their time working with mentors at their offices or labs on research projects and participate in weekly Internship Program events, including field trips and seminars. Below, we highlight the summer research experience of one of our interns.

SESYNC intern
University of Maryland student

What do you think smells worse: a power plant, spewing noxious greenhouse gases and heavy particulates into the atmosphere; a landfill, full of used, unwanted trash and the scraps of society and civilization; or a heap of degrading cow manure, festering of flies and oozing liquid just as rancid as its solid mother form? It’s something we don’t often think about, thanks to effective waste removal and storage systems. But that doesn’t mean our current level of consumption and waste output doesn’t pose a problematic habit to kick if we want to get serious about climate change and environmental degradation.

As traditional non-renewable energy sources deplete, there is great need for alternative energies on both industrial and small scales. Anaerobic digesters (AD) create an ideal environment for anaerobic (i.e., non-oxygen using) bacteria to break organic wastes down to simpler organic hydrocarbon products used for fuel, such as methane, by a process called methanogenesis. Microbial fuel cells (MFC) utilize the sulfate reducing anaerobic bacteria present in the organic waste, which reduce hydrogen sulfate to hydrogen sulfide gas, to harness energy via a chemical electric current. Coupled together, the resulting system presents a sustainable, renewable energy source. Digesters provide energy independence by decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and producing heat usable for space heating. Multiple successful digesters operate on a commercial level, but prove too expensive on a small scale, creating a demand for the optimization of digesters for cost effective use, in particular for use by small farmers.

For the study I worked on during my internship, a series of different substrates, including iron additives and bactericides, have been added to the AD in hopes of finding an additive that optimizes the amount of methane and electricity extracted from the organic wastes. In addition, this study evaluates the production of hydrogen sulfide gas (a source of corrosion for the AD) for each substrate.

While operating the digesters and treatments themselves seems like the nitty gritty, my work with the digestate truly digs to the core of the process. By quantifying the microbial community behind each sample, we determine the amount of bacteria for each sample and relate it to the amount of methane and hydrogen sulfide gas produced by the AD—and how that might affect the optimization of conditions for methogen production, decreasing hydrogen sulfide production, and optimally powering a MFC after methanogenesis.

To determine the microbial community composition and quantity, we extract the microbial DNA from the samples and quantify it using a process called qPCR (qualitative polymerase chain reaction.) Much molecular biological work uses kits manufactured by biotech companies and involve adding a series of solutions and filtering your original sample to isolate out the particular substance you want—and from the brown, murky digestate soup emerges a clean, indiscriminate sample, as clear as if it were pure water. Then, the samples were diluted to a concentration of 1.25 ng/uL and a final volume of 25 uL: a tiny sample, but jam packed with genetic material!

The next step: amplify the DNA with qPCR. qPCR uses a fluorescent dye to measure the actual amount of DNA amplified in each cycle. Since we focus on particular types of bacteria, we amplify the DNA with respect to the gene unique to that community—mcrA, a methanogenesis gene; dsrA, a sulfate reducing gene; and 16S, a gene only found in bacteria and archaea (to quantify the entire bacterial and archaeal community in each sample). qPCR plates for the 16S gene run as I type this, and plates for dsrA will follow.

Looking over the graphs of the preliminary data shows the trend that iron additives result in a decreased gene copy number compared to treatments without iron additives. This correlates with the decreased methane production trends from the iron additive treatments. But since some additives reduce H₂S production, the decreased methane production might be worth it!

Top photo: Intern Tamara Walsky pipetting in the Yarwood Lab
Bottom photo: Doctoral candidate Annie Yarberry and the treatment samples in the Lansing Lab


July 29, 2014

Communications Coordinator

By now, we’ve all seen the before-and-after photo (above) illustrating what our grocery stores would look like if pollinators disappeared from our food system. Given our well-established intolerance of threats to our (pollinator-dependent) avocado supply (Guacapocalypse, anyone?), it was only a matter of time before the President himself would step in to help save the honeybees and hoverflies.

The White House recently issued a presidential memorandum establishing a federal task force to develop a strategy for reversing the declining populations of pollinators. In addition to ensuring the availability of our avocados, pollinators are important for a myriad of ecological and economic reasons—and are a perfect example of the interdependent socio-environmental systems on which SESYNC focuses. But pressures such as habitat loss and degradation, pesticides, and climate change threaten these busy workers and the ecosystem services they provide. In response, the President’s Pollinator Health Task Force is charged with focusing federal efforts to research, prevent, and recover from pollinator losses; to develop a public education campaign that teaches people about how they can help pollinators in their own communities; and to take specific measures to substantially expand pollinator habitat on federal lands, as well as build on federal efforts with public–private partnerships.

The memo establishes pollinator protection as a national priority: an important step in the right direction. And because the federal government owns a great deal of land (roughly 635–640 million acres), it has an opportunity to make a big impact through its management strategies for increasing and improving pollinator habitat on those lands.

The memo’s Pollinator Research Action Plan also opens the door for synthesis amongst the agencies and organizations already doing good work on pollinators. Many of the items identified in the memo’s Pollinator Research Action Plan are being studied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (including its Colony Collapse Disorder Steering Committee), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a number of state land grant institutions and non-profits, such as The Xerces Society and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. Dr. David Hawthorne, SESYNC’s Director of Education and Outreach and Associate Professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland, is hopeful that the federal task force will aggregate the information and perspectives from these diverse sources with those of the agencies tasked with creating the action plan to effectively synthesize both the ecological and the social information needed to develop an effective plan.

But does the memorandum go far enough? The pollinator crisis is a remarkably complex problem, shaped by different landscapes and plant communities; insect, bat, and bird populations; and numerous land uses and governmental jurisdictions. And although economic concerns are a prominent impetus for the memorandum, the engagement of social scientists appears lacking in the research plan.

“The plan could end up a traditional, natural science-oriented search for solutions and best practices,” says Hawthorne. “One thing that would make it stronger would be to include social science and governance expertise. How, for example, does improving pollinator habitat impact the utility of the land for the people who use it? If improved pollinator habitat is at odds with another designated land use, how does that conflict affect the vitality of the pollinator habitat over time?”

SESYNC’s Quantitative Programs Researcher Kelly Hondula notes that we don’t necessarily recognize negative impacts on pollinators or ecosystem services until it affects us personally—until we see, for example, either a sharp rise in avocado prices at the grocery store or their complete disappearance from produce displays.

“The point of understanding pollination as an ecosystem service that underlies the things we care about,” says Hondula, “is to prevent that price spike or product loss before it happens in the first place, because intervention is better, easier, and cheaper than trying to recover something after it’s lost.”

The social science perspective, therefore, would be important to an effective pollinator research and action plan because it would provide a context for valuation of trade-offs. The complexity of the pollinator crisis means there’s no single, silver bullet solution. Potential solutions should be evaluated within a socio-environmental framework to determine at what “costs” we are willing to save our pollinators … and our avocados.

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

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

SESYNC, USDA Partner to Catalyze Data-Driven Research on Food Systems Resilience to Climate Change

Annapolis, Md — In partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) announces the “Data to Motivate Synthesis” Program for early career scientists and researchers at the agriculture, environment, and social nexus to identify and understand the factors that influence food systems resilience to climate change.


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