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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.

Socio-Ecological Movements in Urban Ecosystems

December 17, 2013

Postdoctoral Fellow

How do urban ecosystems recover from environmental disasters? Answering this question requires the bridging of social science and ecological research—the goal of the Socio-Ecological Movements in Urban Ecosystems (MOVE) project led by Dr. Henrik Ernstson. This project studies how urban civic organizations engage local green areas, such as protecting and rehabilitating wetlands, urban farming, and tree planting, to produce ecological changes. The project has many components involving both social and ecological science teams studying areas in South Africa (Cape Town) and the United States (New Orleans, Louisiana), with additional plans to add future sites as well. I joined the social science team in South Africa in 2012. This fall, we had the first combined meeting of the social science and ecological teams for both South Africa and the U.S.

In my portion of the MOVE project, referred to as the Civic Network Study, we interviewed representatives of Cape Town organizations and asked them about how their groups mobilized around green spaces. For example, some groups organized to protect the hiking trails on a nearby mountain; some worked to improve water quality in nearby wells or streams; and others had broader missions of social justice with many different campaigns. We are also studying the networks formed when these organizations collaborate with each other and how ties between organizations with similar goals, tactics, ideological platforms, etc. relate to their perceptions of success. The ecological team gathered information on the types of plants and animals present in a sampling of areas around Cape Town that included many of the sites mentioned by the organizations surveyed by the social science team. They want to see how much impact these groups have had and what the different recovery or improvement processes look like around the city.

The purpose of our meeting in New Orleans was to have the social and ecological teams from Cape Town discuss their data sets and initial findings together, as well as to speak with the teams based in New Orleans about their project, where data collection is currently underway. On the first day of the meeting, Dr. Joshua Lewis, project leader of the New Orleans teams and a native of the city, led a field trip around the area. He called attention to the interplay between social and environmental forces within the city, and how continuous feedback loops between those forces have shaped the city. For example, we saw where soil displacement due to water traffic has alternately shored up land around private homes in some areas but aided erosion in others (like the lower 9th ward that was so devastated by Hurricane Katrina).

The quote that stayed with me throughout that first day was that New Orleans is “the inevitable city in the impossible location.” Social and economic forces demanded a stronghold at the gateway to the Mississippi River, which made the land the inevitable site for a city, but the “impossible” physicality of the location has had a constant impact on the nature of its growth. This description was driven home when we saw the area of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) levee that collapsed during Hurricane Katrina (below photo).

Photo credit:Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA, Flickr/Creative Commons

Some houses, destroyed by the flood that resulted from the levee breach, are being rebuilt in the same location as before—steps from the levee. One example are the homes from Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project just to the east of the Claiborne Ave Bridge. These homes have been at the center of controversy because this part of the 9th Ward is still vulnerable to flooding, and initially these houses cost approximately $400,000 each (below photo).

Photo credit: Mark Gstohl, Flickr/Creative Commons

We also visited the now almost-destroyed cypress forest of Bayou Bienvenue. The photo below shows the forest today—almost entirely open water—but before the construction of the MRGO in the 1960s, this was a thriving freshwater forest. The introduction of saltwater through the MRGO starting in the 1970s destroyed the ecosystem and made the lower 9th ward, the eastern edge of which was built on dredged swampland, even more vulnerable to flooding. (For more info and restoration projects, click here.) The day was capped off by watching the new documentary MRGOing, Going, Gone? The filmmakers began filming this documentary about the Gulf Outlet in 2003, but kept filming for years afterwards due to Hurricane Katrina and its devastation. The consequences of the Hurricane were greatly intensified by the prior damage the MRGO had done to the New Orleans coastline. The filmmakers caught predictions of such devastation on tape years before Katrina struck, and they cogently showed how the construction of the MRGO set the conditions for a disaster like Katrina because large residential populations were positioned on increasingly vulnerable soil.

Photo credit: Infrogmation, Flickr/Creative Commons

Touring these areas gave the Cape Town teams some background into the New Orleans case. The two teams then discusses parallels in the history of the two cities: both are port towns; both are a melting pot of native populations, colonialists, and immigrants; and both have witnessed recent massive ecological upheaval. The South Africa teams (both social and ecological) tried to impart some lessons from the data gathering that has gone on in Cape Town to help plan for data collection in New Orleans.

The second day focused on the data our project teams have collected on social movement organizations and area plants and animals in Cape Town, South Africa. The social science team (Henrik Ernstson, Mario Diani, and me) hadn’t all met since designing the survey a year prior. Now that we had the data in hand, we needed to inspect it for errors and clean (i.e., remove duplicates among) the list of organizations mentioned. Cleaning the civic networks dataset was an especially challenging undertaking with 120 surveys ranging from 1–2 hours in length. After we finished cleaning, we identified 1,005 unique organizations including those interviewed, and identified a target set of organizations that were central in these original networks (meaning they were mentioned by three or more other interviews) for interviews in the second wave that will start soon.

This cleaning process took us much longer than the meeting in New Orleans, but it is now completed. We’re waiting for our colleagues to finish up the last few interviews, and then we will start the analyses. We plan to present findings at the 7th annual Political Networks conference at McGill University in May 2014. Hopefully, we’ll be able to compare our findings to those of the New Orleans group shortly thereafter.

Top photo: Jocelyn Augustino
Middle photo: Mark Gstohl
Bottom photo: Infrogmation
All photos Flickr/Creative Commons

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Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Computational Challenges

November 21, 2013

Research Associate

Over the last decade, agent-based modeling (ABM) has become a popular approach for investigating human–environment interactions (An, 2012). The recognition that humans are primary agents of change in the natural landscape (Ellis and Ramankutty, 2008)—combined with the ability of ABMs to explicitly model human decision-making—drives the popularity of this approach. A particularly interesting application of ABMs to socio-environmental systems has been to explore sudden transitions, or thresholds, that can emerge in natural systems due to human activities. A relevant example of interactions between sea level rise, rapid shoreline erosion, and beach nourishment can be found here.

In addition to being cool science, this example demonstrates a fundamental challenge of studying human–environment interactions and why computational models are becoming so important: the long time and massive spatial scales of most human–environment systems make it impossible to conduct traditional field-based research. Further, if one wants to learn something by comparing human–environment interactions across multiple locations, then either a small army of field technicians that can be deployed across sites is required, or the researcher must bring the real system into the computer via a simulation model. These cross-site comparative questions are currently some of the most compelling research questions being asked: how are human–environment systems similar or different across locations; is there something about a particular location that makes human–environment interactions more or less sustainable; and under what conditions do sudden transitions in sustainability occur?

Of course, just because it is easier to ask cross-site comparative questions with computational rather than field-based approaches, doesn't mean answering them is any easier. In fact, carrying out many iterations of computational experiments for a large set of study sites can be computationally challenging. Depending on the models and number of study sites, one could be facing days (or even ... gulp ... weeks) of computer time!

Fortunately, in this age of interdisciplinary research teams, socio-environmental researchers are finding strong allies in computer scientists. These new partnerships bring challenges for both parties. From my own experience as a socio-environmental researcher, I have had to become fluent with more computing jargon than I  knew existed in order to ask the right questions, and my computer scientist colleagues are finding new challenges with parallel computing of distributed, interacting, rule-based algorithms common in ABMs. Add large and complicated data sets for parameterizing and testing ABMs to it, and the computational challenges become more than most individual researchers can handle. Thus, finding adequate computational support is critical for progressing beyond these technical barriers, and can present opportunities to ask new research questions that about complex, large-scale socio-environmental systems that could not otherwise be asked.

Researchers interested in data-intensive and modeling-based projects are invited to submit applications to SESYNC’s newest research theme. Full details on the call for proposals can be found here.


An, L. (2012). Modeling human decisions in coupled human and natural systems: review of agent-based models. Ecological Modelling, 229, 25–36.

Ellis, E.C. and Ramankutty, N. (2008). Putting people in the map: Anthropogenic biomes of the world. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6, 439–47.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies

November 19, 2013

This week, we're reposting a blog from our archives to complement new resources available for educators. As part of the Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies short course, held at SESYNC in July 2013, participants have produced a series of case studies for use in the classroom.

Click here to access the case studies (scroll down).

Click here to complete an instructor survey after using a case study in your classroom. (Your feedback is important to us!)


Assistant Director, Education and Outreach


What are the topics, concepts, and competencies associated with teaching socio-environmental synthesis (SES)?


By glancing at this word cloud generated by participants of Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies, the short course recently hosted at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), it is clear that SES involves a broad suite of topics, concepts, and competencies. However, the words above—though they hint at the complexity of SES—still do not capture the essence of what it means to teach SES, as it is more than just a collection of topics, concepts, and competencies. Rather, it is a problem-solving approach, and the key to learning about SES lies in the examples—in the details of the profound socio-environmental problems that SES addresses.

Stories are keys to student learning. Teaching is most effective when students are engaged, and a compelling way to draw students in is to relate the lesson to something students care about and are interested in. This is the basis of the case study method of teaching, a high-impact, active-learning pedagogy. Given the problem-based focus of SES, this approach is a good fit for teaching SES. Thus, a course that introduces participants to this teaching approach and helps them build SES-focused case study activities of their own serves as a good place to start our short course offerings.

The short course, held at SESYNC on July 23–26, 2013, drew 41 participants from across the country, and one participant from across the Atlantic. Participants included professors, graduate students, and postdocs from a variety of disciplines in the natural and social sciences, all with varying degrees of familiarity with SES. Each participant, whether as part of a team or as an individual, came to the course prepared to write their own SES case study. Following an introductory day focused on addressing the question of “what does it mean to teach socio-environmental synthesis,” participants then focused on the question of how to teach SES and were introduced to case study teaching by Dr. Clyde Herreid, Director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, who expertly guided them through a series of exercises designed to help them develop their own cases.

Participants quickly discovered—as SESYNC postdocs Dr. Judy Che-Castaldo and Dr. William Burnside and I discovered earlier when writing two SES cases of our own for this course—that writing a SES case study for use in a classroom can be very challenging given the complexity of socio-environmental problems. However, participants also discovered the appeal of teaching SES with the case study method. Not only is it an active and engaging way to teach, but it is also a flexible approach that lends itself well to modification for different courses. Of the many types of case study activities, several are particularly appropriate for teaching the collaborative and interdisciplinary competencies critical for SES. For example, for a case that Dr. Che-Castaldo, Dr. Burnside, and I wrote on endangered species recovery, students work collaboratively in small groups to prioritize conservation efforts for a small number of endangered species based on several data sets. When this exercise is used with students from different majors, it also becomes an exercise in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Over the 3 1/2 day course, a steady buzz of conversation filled the common area of SESYNC as participants dove into writing their cases. Once completed, this collection of SES-related case studies teaching activities will be made available online for others to use either in their own classrooms or as templates for developing their own activities.

The course ended as it began—with words from the participants. This time, a response to how they were feeling at the end of the course: “motivated,” “inspired,” “overwhelmed,” “informed,” “encouraged,” and “pumped!” If I were to add a word, it would be “grateful”—for the opportunity to meet this insightful and dedicated group of scientists and educators.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

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.


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:

Smart Infrastructure: Putting the Green in Stormwater Management

October 7, 2013

Postdoctoral Fellow

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:

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 


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