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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.

Now You See It

June 24, 2014

Many researchers in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS) are harnessing the power of “big data”—a popular term used to describe the massive amount of information that is acquired, stored, searched, shared, analyzed and visualized—in the quest for answers to some of the world’s most complex problems. Using the latest computational tools to extract the most important pieces of information from these huge data sets and applying sophisticated analytic techniques, researchers are discovering patterns and making unexpected connections in virtually every scientific discipline.

Director of Cyberinfrastructure Joseph JaJa, Postdoctoral Fellow Mary Collins, and SESYNC Scientific Programmer Ian Muñoz are featured in the June 2014 issue of Odyssey Magazine, published by CMNS at the University of Maryland.

Click here to read the story.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Innovative Technology for Global Food Waste Solutions

June 19, 2014

From simple sun drying systems for produce to home appliances networked with food distributors, food scientist John Floros sees a major role for technology in reducing worldwide food waste.

Science Communication Fellow

As much as one-third to one-half of the world’s food harvest is lost from field to plate every year, experts estimate. Food scientist John Floros wants to change those numbers—and he’s betting on a new food science and innovation center to help turn things around.

How ingenuity will feed the world.The new lab’s work will be critical to food security by preserving more and better quality food for the world’s growing population, says Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture at Kansas State University and director of K-State Research and Extension. The new food center, called the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, is housed at Kansas State University and coordinates with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Initially the new lab will focus on helping the countries of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana and Guatemala reduce their post-harvest losses and food waste for grain and oil seed crops, tuberous root crops, and peanut and legume crops. Researchers will investigate how to prevent insect pests and fungus when crops are stored as well as improved techniques for measurement, drying and storage.

Continue reading at FutureFood 2050.

Mapping the Landscape of Land Change Synthesis

June 12, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Much of what we know about how humans use land, and how those practices change over time, is informed by local case studies. But determining whether individual case studies are merely anecdotal—or if they can be scaled up to help explain regional or even global land use patterns—can be a challenge.

To reconcile local information with regional–global knowledge, researchers who study land change must also reconcile the diversity of disciplines involved in land change science. From urban economics to geophysics and ecology to geography, each brings with it disparate data types and research questions.

The research approach of synthesis—which “draws upon and distills many sources of data, ideas, explanations, and methods in order to accelerate knowledge production beyond that of less integrative approaches”—is especially useful in this context.

“People who study land use change are often dealing with both quantitative and qualitative data, due to the human component of the field,” said Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, computational research associate at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). “If you’re trying to integrate, for example, satellite remote sensing imagery with farmer surveys, your synthesis techniques will necessarily vary from those used for highly-controlled and standardized field experiments.”

In a new study published in Regional Environmental Change, lead author Magliocca and co-authors map the landscape of synthesis within land change science, and identify specific techniques born of the land change community that are specifically designed to integrate these types of diverse data sets. The study tasks itself with helping researchers identify which synthesis methods are most appropriate for what they’re trying to do and what type of data they have—and, importantly, with identifying ways to improve upon these methods.

“Synthesis, and meta-studies in particular, are becoming a very popular approach within the land change community,” said Magliocca. “This paper highlights some of the more innovative approaches that enable us to link local observations with regional and global patterns. Considering both at the same time is pretty unique, and pretty powerful.”

Access the article online at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10113-014-0626-8

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

Top photo: Charles Tilford, Flickr/Creative Commons

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

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.

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!


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.

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.

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.


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

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

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


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