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.

Examining the Ecology & Sociology Behind the Urban Mosquito

August 12, 2013

Sophie Jin
Sophie gives a tour of the lab she worked in this summer.

by SOPHIE JIN
SESYNC Intern

“Hey kid! Do you like science?”

“No!”

Right after he replied, the boy returned to tending his bean plant along his window still. A few moments later, he pointed to our caddies full of bottles of filthy water, turkey basters, and siphons, asking us to explain what we were up to.

As a SESYNC intern, I am spending my summer with Dr. Leisnham’s lab at the University of Maryland College Park, helping a project studying urban mosquito vectors and their social and ecological factors.

Baltimore holds a diverse population of people, with neighborhoods that sit on both ends of the spectrum in terms of income and education. Low-income neighborhoods are marked by trash and dilapidated buildings. They often host unkempt containers and tires, which collect standing water: ideal conditions for mosquito larvae. High-income neighborhoods display fountains, fish ponds, and empty trash cans turned over and tucked away. Through social and ecological research methods, the project hopes to better understand how the different environmental and social structures of Baltimore’s neighborhoods contribute to its mosquito population.

Mosquitoes may only be a nuisance to many Baltimore residents. But as the city acts as an international hub, it risks introduction to new and foreign diseases. Epidemics such as Malaria, Dengue fever, and West Nile virus show the importance of keeping mosquitoes under control as they are excellent vectors for disease, making mosquitoes a significant human health concern.

The research project requires extensive field work in the Baltimore community surveying residents, trapping mosquitoes, and collecting water from potential breeding areas. Some days we may carry large white cylindrical mosquito traps and coolers of smoking dry ice (which releases CO2, a mosquito attractant). Other days we may carry caddies while siphoning water samples of mosquito larvae into bottles. We certainly present a curious sight and naturally, people ask questions.

Communicating our work in the neighborhoods of Baltimore resulted in varying responses, from an appreciative “Thank you for your work” to a dismissive door shut. Amidst the mixed reactions, it is uplifting to see community members, such as the boy who claims to “dislike” science, show interest in what we are doing and hopefully learn that there is more to the urban mosquito than an itchy bump.


Trash collects in an alley in Union Park, Baltimore. Trash and tires can hold water and host mosquito larvae.

Reference:

LaDeau SL, Leisnham PT, Biehler D, Bodner D. Higher Mosquito Production in Low-Income Neighborhoods of Baltimore and Washington, DC: Understanding Ecological Drivers and Mosquito-Borne Disease Risk in Temperate Cities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2013; 10(4):1505–1526.

About this blog:

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)’s Internship Program 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. These events include trips to SESYNC facilities in Annapolis, where interns are introduced to the socio-environmental synthesis research approach.

Above, we highlight the summer research experience of one of our interns, Sophie Jin.

SESYNC Word on the Street: Epistemology

August 9, 2013

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:

Word on the Street archive:
Wicked Problem

Workshop Application

Workshops are single meetings of up to 30 participants that focus on a broad topic or a set of related topics. Workshops may summarize and/or synthesize the state of the topic and/or identify future directions that have the potential to lead to a larger synthesis effort. We are particularly interested in Workshops that bring together new combinations of individuals and disciplines.

Globalizing Our Understanding of Land-use Change

June 26, 2013

Land-use Change team

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

A geographer, ecologist, anthropologist, and economist walk into a research center …

No, it’s not the beginning of a bad joke, but the beginning of a very productive workshop that convened recently at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). Earlier this month, co-organizers Dr. Jasper van Vliet of the VU University of Amsterdam, Dr. Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, and Dr. Nicholas Magliocca of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County led scholars, from an array of disciplines and institutions, through an examination of land-use change. (Land-use change is broadly understood as how humans use land—to fulfill, for example, our demands for food, forest products, and energy—and how those uses change land cover, including beaches, agricultural lands, and urban environments.) Specifically, the group was interested in finding patterns among and cultivating shared perspectives on the causes and consequences of land-use change on a global scale.

Although geographers, ecologists, anthropologists, and economists have most certainly researched and synthesized data related to land-use change before, the workshop participants hadn’t all done so together. Scholars from these disciplines have their own journals; their own conferences; their own ways of thinking about problems and approaching solutions. This SESYNC workshop offered these researchers—who, in most cases, had never before worked with one another—an opportunity to sit at the same table to formulate shared understandings of the drivers and outcomes of land-use change.

The workshop’s principal focus was to determine next steps within a larger research effort of the Global Land Project on globalized understandings of land changes. One theme that emerged was the importance of disseminating research results to communities that make decisions about and are impacted by changes in land use, especially policy makers. “Co-designing” the team’s research agenda—i.e., planning research objectives and approaches together with stakeholders who would use the knowledge generated—will help close the gap between what scientists do and what information policy makers need.

By integrating new perspectives, this workshop is driving the team’s work forward in novel and exciting ways. According to Dr. Ellis, the experience “open[ed] the door on broadening the thinking about how land changes and how we can synthesize our knowledge about that. And that, of course, is a little bit scary. You get out of your comfort zone—what is it that we aren’t really sure about? That’s the cutting edge. And we’re definitely there.”

Above photo: Reto Fetz / Creative Commons

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. We foster collaboration amongst scholars from a diverse array of the natural and social sciences (such as ecology, 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. 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.

Click here to see a list of projects funded by SESYNC.

Audience: 

Meet Our Postdocs: Bill Burnside

June 13, 2013

Bill in the field looking for antsName: Bill Burnside

Institution: The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)

Hometown: El Paso, TX

Field of Study: Ecology

Postdoctoral Project: Toward a Macroecology of Sustainability: Patterns, Processes, & Principles of Socio-environmental Systems
  

  
Photo: Bill looking for ants in New Mexico

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I've been an amateur naturalist since I was a child, but that tendency was nurtured by growing up literally on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. I collected insects, fossils, and minerals I found there and amassed a little library of nature guides and books on wildlife. My great aunt would exclaim in Spanish, “Ay, Dios mio (Oh, my Lord),” upon opening my closet and seeing cigar boxes full of dried bugs. College courses on human-environment interactions expanded my interests to include people as part of ecological systems—an interest nurtured by my stepfather, an archaeologist, and by my graduate mentor and colleagues.

Beyond the compelling nature of ecology as a field, I was inspired by the opportunity to teach (which I really enjoy), to study amazing environments and organisms, and to make a difference. Ecological issues usually take a back seat to other concerns, yet are crucial to our survival and prosperity.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher at SESYNC?

My favorite aspect of being a researcher at SESYNC is having the time and intellectual space to think deeply about interesting and potentially useful ideas, both by myself as well as with a great group of colleagues and visitors.

What are the societal benefits of your research?

I hope my research provides some comparative perspective on sustainability efforts, which are often studied in isolation. I also hope it brings ecologists and economists together to work on basic theory that might contribute to better understanding and management of socio-environmental systems—because ecologists and economists are both studying our “house” (eco – comes from oikos, Greek for "house"), and because both involve the study of how organisms use limited means (e.g., the currency of energy in ecology and that of money in economics) to try to meet unlimited wants.

Have you learned anything in your research that has surprised you?

Among three species of harvester ants that differ in the number of ants in an average colony, species with larger colonies were no more successful at harvesting seeds during timed trials than those with smaller colonies, even though they had more scouts out looking for seeds and a larger workforce to harvest seeds.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

My graduate mentor, ecologist Jim Brown, has had the most influence. His passion for ecology, broad intellectual interests, macroscopic approach, and combination of insight and instinct continue to inspire me.

What’s your favorite theory?

I don’t have a favorite, but the metabolic theory of ecology is compelling and informs some of my work. It is the idea that a few key factors that affect the metabolic rates of individual organisms, such as temperature and body size, will scale up to affect ecological patterns and processes, such as the rates at which species will interact. It’s a powerful idea with broad implications, but it’s still being refined.

What are you reading right now?

Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows
Sustainability Science, by Bert deVries
The Magician of Lublin, by I.B. Singer

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

I’d grab my backpack, which contains my phone, a snack, and other essentials. My laptop is backed up, but my physical belongings are not. And I never like being too far away from a good snack.

Click here to read more about Bill.
  

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. We foster collaboration amongst scholars from a diverse array of the natural and social sciences (such as ecology, 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. 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.

Click here to see a list of projects funded by SESYNC.

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