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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.

Endangered Species Day 2013

May 16, 2013

ES Day

Postdoctoral Fellow

In 2006, the U.S. Senate designated the third Friday of May as Endangered Species Day to raise awareness about imperiled species and the successes in species recovery due to protections by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the ESA.

Endangered species recovery is a socio-environmental issue because species conservation involves not only the species of concern, but also the human populations that interact with the species. For example, people may depend upon the use of resources, such as timber in an endangered species’ habitat, and protection of that habitat may change or even eliminate that resource’s availability. Wildlife managers must balance these social and economic considerations with the species’ ecological requirements when creating recovery plans to conserve species.

Because each species has a unique combination of specific biological needs, threats, and social context, management actions and recovery goals can vary tremendously among species. However, that does not necessarily mean that recovery plans are inconsistent or not based on the best available science. As a postdoc at SESYNC, my research aims to understand to what extent the recovery targets for endangered species are based on species’ needs, which are relatively transparent, compared to social, political, or economic factors, which are often not explicitly stated in the recovery plans. One of the goals of this work is to encourage more transparency in the managers’ decision-making process. This research would also quantify relationships between recovery targets and various species attributes, which may be used to establish targets for species with too little biological data to set species-specific targets. There are many such species, including the majority of the 338 Hawaiian plant species that are listed under the ESA.

Celebrate this year’s Endangered Species Day by learning about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species in your area, or listening to the success stories about species that have improved their status on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website. To find out more about Endangered Species Day, including events in your area and podcasts by the Endangered Species Coalition, visit www.stopextinction.org/esd.html. If you are in the Washington, D.C., area, consider attending the Endangered Species Day events at the U.S. Botanic Garden on May 17.

Click here to learn more about Judy.

Agriculture & Cultural Landscapes: A Reflection on the AAG Annual Meeting

May 9, 2013

Rachel at farmers market
Rachel at a farmers market in Los Angeles.


Graduate Research Assistant

As one of the discipline’s five themes, human-environment interactions are foundational to the field of Geography. Two-way relationships between humans and the environment affect physical and cultural landscapes. This year’s Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Los Angeles, CA, offered several thought-provoking sessions around one of the most fundamental human-environment interactions: agriculture.

At this year's meeting, I participated in a paper session entitled “Interracial Dynamics in Urban Agriculture or (How) Race Matters in Urban Agriculture." Presenters addressed human-environment interactions and, in particular, how they play out through cultural landscapes in urban settings. Cultural and ethnic groups engaged in urban agriculture often leave group imprints—which can be structural, aesthetic, linguistic, and ecological—on the community gardens and farms in which they work. For example, in their research on Puerto Rican community gardens in New York City, Laura Saldivar-Tanaka and Marianne E. Krasny point to casitas (small wooden houses used for leisure and cultural activities) and ethnic vegetable crops (such as brujo [oregano], sweet peppers, and kimbombo) as reflecting the gardeners' country of origin.

My paper in development, entitled "Sustainable agriculture in the Jewish community: A Baltimore, Maryland case study," explores a new Jewish cultural landscape emerging on a sustainable community farm. In developing a new cultural landscape, the humans involved on the farm interact with and thus impact the surrounding environment—for instance, by producing etrogs, an otherwise obscure citrus fruit used for ritual activity during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The farm's resultant, bucolic setting reflects Jewish culture, history, and tradition based on crop variety, architecture, and ritual structures.

Cultural landscapes are a product of human impacts on the environment, but the interaction goes both ways: the surrounding environment (be it a rural farm, urban community garden, or individual-size backyard plot) impacts human culture and behavior. Elements of agriculture may be normalized or incorporated into a farmer's preexisting culture or lifestyle. Agricultural activity may also present new educational and economic opportunities. In his paper “Race, Community Geography, and the Development of an Urban Agriculture Curriculum and Community Partnerships at a Predominately African-American University,” Daniel Block described a new urban agricultural initiative at Chicago State University (CSU), a predominantly African-American institution. The urban agricultural project is intended for the development of black entrepreneurship. CSU's initiative intends to use agriculture as a vehicle for professional development and entrepreneurial endeavors.

While in Los Angeles, I spent time investigating the cultural landscapes surrounding agriculture both within and outside the AAG meeting. My investigation took an experiential turn as I checked out several farmers markets throughout the city. The produce, signage, and vendors reflected cultures different from those in my hometown, and this variation was apparent through the markets' cultural landscapes. For example, I learned how to best prepare and serve cactus leaves (a plant non-native to the DC metro area). Try them in a smoothie! As local farming initiatives continue to grow and diffuse throughout the United States, I look forward to exploring the new human-environment interactions and cultural landscapes that emerge.

Meet Our Postdocs: Drew Gerkey

April 29, 2013

Drew Gerkey

Name: Drew Gerkey
Institution: SESYNC
Hometown: Stillwater, MN
Field of Study: Anthropology

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I was an English Literature and Anthropology major in college. I decided to continue studying Anthropology in graduate school for two reasons. First, I found it exciting and challenging to document and understand cultural variation, to learn about different ways of understanding and being in the world. Before entering graduate school, I hadn’t traveled much abroad, so this had mostly been an intellectual exercise. I was excited to have a chance to experience some of these challenges firsthand and try to apply scholarly work on the ground. The opportunity to travel to amazing and interesting places and meet new people is definitely a perk of being an anthropologist, so I suppose that’s a second reason I chose to continue studying Anthropology. I love books and I love libraries, but it’s fun to be out there interacting with new people and places.

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

I’m always thankful for the way my job as a researcher allows me the flexibility and resources to pursue questions and ideas that I find exciting, perplexing, and important. I love learning and teaching, so to have a job that lets me make a living doing both is great.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist?

It’s hard to identify a single characteristic, but I think passion is probably the key to being a successful researcher. From what I’ve seen, the best scholars are passionate about the work they do. Whether it’s the ideas they explore or the issues they address that drive them most, you need to be passionate about your work in order to slog through the challenges you encounter along the way.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most?

Anthropologists travel quite a bit and spend long periods of time away from home. People often assume that’s one of the hardest parts of the job, and it certainly is, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think. We spend enough time in the places where we work to develop connections to the people there. So the pull goes in both directions. When we’re traveling, we feel the pull of home, and when we’re home, we feel the pull of the places where we work. It can be unsettling, but it’s also important part of our process, and we learn from it.

What’s your favorite theory?

Right now, I’m excited about network theory. It provides some concepts and tools for scholarly research that are truly unique, and it’s easy to see how these ideas apply to wide variety of practical issues in the world today. For someone interested in synthesizing research across disciplines, it also gives us a shared framework that can be used by researchers working in very different contexts. Though network theory has a long intellectual tradition, there is also a sense that new insights are arising all the time, which makes it exciting to follow.

What are you reading right now?

For work, I’m reading two books (in addition to bottomless virtual folders of .pdf articles):

  1. Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, by Lee Cronk and Beth Leech
  2. Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Resource Governance, edited by Örjan Bodin and Christina Prell

For pleasure, I’m trying to find time to read the newest book by one of my favorite authors:

  1. The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

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

It’s a sad truth, but I can’t imagine what would happen if I lost my laptop, so I would grab that without thinking of my safety. But I also wouldn’t hesitate to push my luck and grab one more essential item, my Swingline High Capacity/Reduced Effort stapler. It hasn’t met a journal article it couldn’t handle.

Click here to read more about Drew.

SESYNC at White House Easter Egg Roll

April 5, 2013

SESYNC at Easter Egg Roll

Assistant Director, Education and Outreach

Cynthia Wei, SESYNC’s Assistant Director of Education and Outreach, was invited to participate in the 135th annual White House Easter Egg Roll earlier this week.

The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) participated for the first time in the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on Monday, April 1, 2013. ASTC joined Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to provide hands-on science activities at the festivities. The challenge for all these organizations was how  to get kids interested in science amidst egg rolls, egg hunts, hula hooping, concerts, story-telling, and celebrity sightings.

The answer: start with fun. At the ASTC area, kids were enticed by hearing strange kazoo-like noises and the prospect of making a fun craft. Once the kids had come over to the tables, I introduced the science with questions: Did you know that a rubber band could be a musical instrument? Do you know how sound is created? After we made the “sound sandwiches,” I had the kids experiment by applying pressure at different points on the sound sandwich to discover how the sound changes.

What is the impact of making approximately 2,500 “sound sandwiches” on public understanding of science? That is difficult to quantify. But I can say that the impact extends beyond the kids: just as many parents and older siblings that accompanied the kids to the ASTC tables were engaged by the activity and learned a little bit of science. “Sound sandwiches” may be a long way from socio-environmental synthesis, but it illustrates how science can be incorporated into the public sphere and how interest in science and inquiry can be encouraged early and often. This is critical to all science.

SESYNC at Easter Egg Roll

Solving the Mystery of Marine Protected Area Performance

March 12, 2013

Fox group

Digital Information Research Specialist

Communications Coordinator

Recently, a diverse group that included marine scientists, governance scholars, database developers, and management experts convened at SESYNC to address the question of under what conditions do designated marine protected areas (MPAs) improve the ecological and social conditions in coastal communities. Funded under SESYNC’s Ecosystem Services Theme, this pursuit aims to document and explain the impacts of MPAs at local, regional, and global scales and to generate scientific insights that can be used to inform both academic research and marine policy deliberations.

SESYNC appealed to the project’s principal investigators, Dr. Helen Fox of the World Wildlife Fund and Dr. Robert Pomeroy of the University of Connecticut, as the right opportunity for their research proposal because of our transdisciplinary integration of social and natural approaches to environmental problem-solving. Participants in this group are all experts in their respective fields, but, as one participant commented, no one person can possible know all available data in all fields—collaborative, integrated synthesis amongst scientists and practitioners from different disciplines can help fill knowledge niches and lead to meaningful, actionable results.

The participants’ varied backgrounds and perspectives meant that an important first step was to develop a cross-disciplinary understanding of their meeting, as well as overall research, goals. During the three-day gathering, the team coalesced around a common framework, shared vocabulary, and possible data sources and analytical approaches. They then identified the next steps to be undertaken by four interconnected, self-selected subgroups that formed in response to the broad tasks identified by the team.

We were excited to see this group make full use of our provided resources. They found our teleconferencing capabilities easy to use and were able to share screens, notes, and video with colleagues on the West Coast and in Europe. Small breakout groups frequently formed in our common area, then reconvened in plenary in our large conference room. One participant found the atmosphere of collegiality created by the physical space so appealing that he asked for the blueprints to inform a redesign at his home institution!

Our cyberinfrastructure resources will continue to support this team in accomplishing its goals between on-site meetings. The team is already making good use of the collaborative workspace and file share we provide to all groups. In addition, our IT staff is ready to support the complex data discovery and synthesis efforts of the project by advising on database design and providing remote access to our database and GIS servers.

We look forward to welcoming this group back to SESYNC for its second meeting later this year.

Reframing Restoration for Novel Ecosystems

March 7, 2013

Novel Ecosystem

Communications Associate

“Certain people always say we should go back to nature. I notice they never say we should go forward to nature. It seems to me they are more concerned that we should go back, than about nature.”
                                                            — Adolph Gottlieb, 1947

For many ecosystems world-wide, environmental deterioration has likely led to a point of no return: through intensive human use followed by abandonment, non-native species invasions, and/or off-site influences, among other factors, these ecosystems have crossed into new, unique states that are entirely different from any past or present ecosystem. System thresholds—such as pollutant loading, urbanization, or directional changes in temperature and precipitation—prevent strained species populations or altered landscapes from returning to their former, historical compositions.

These so-called “novel ecosystems” present a very real challenge to traditional notions of environmental restoration, which are often concerned with reverting to conditions that precede human disturbance. Within this context, novel ecosystems—by virtue of their tipped thresholds—appear to be an endgame in which restoration efforts are out of luck and out of time.

However, if we redefine our understanding and implementation of environmental restoration to take account of the barriers of novel ecosystems—if we transfer our focus from composition to function—recovery is again within sight.

SESYNC recently welcomed visiting scholar Dr. Michael Perring, Research Associate, School of Plant Biology, University of Western Australia, to our Annapolis facility in support of his continuing synthesis research on novel ecosystems. In his SESYNC Seminar on February 26, Dr. Perring introduced the concept of novel ecosystems, as well as an experiment that’s investigating the reframing of ecological restoration in an era of novel ecosystems.

The Ridgefield Multiple Ecosystem Services Experiment at the University of Western Australia’s Future Farm tests the utility of restoring for ecosystem function. The farmland, heavily altered by cropping and sheep grazing, is typified by ecosystem structures and functions unrecognizable to their pre-agricultural state. Led by Dr. Perring and Dr. Richard Hobbs, the research team is endeavoring to improve management practices of degraded agricultural landscapes through the restoration of ecosystem functions of particular value to land managers, policy makers, and the general public.

In 2010, Ridgefield’s 124 experimental plots were planted with 10 different combinations of eight species of native trees and shrubs, and categorized according to soil type, moisture content, and directional aspect so as to ensure geographic controls. The goal: to determine how these various vegetative combinations affect carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, invasion resistance, pollination, and soil erosion prevention. Could these functions be restored to an ecologically degraded landscape?

While Ridgefield is a long-term project, early results tentatively confirm predictions that plots containing a higher number of species support increased functioning of multiple ecosystem services.

In a time of widespread and rapid environmental change, novel ecosystems are becoming increasingly common. Traditional restoration efforts remain relevant to ecological communities that have not yet reached a tipping point—but have failed when applied to novel ecosystems. The research at Ridgefield addresses an emergent need for new goals and methods in restoration practice, and highlights an opportunity for synthesis research to both extend the implication of Ridgefield and identify data gaps among experiments concerned with similar questions.

For Dr. Perring’s research, this opportunity means synthesizing social and regulatory implications for novel ecosystems with ecological factors. During his time in Annapolis, Dr. Perring extended his research by working with SESYNC staff and postdoctoral fellows to identify how social variables (e.g., differing organizational, community, or business goals) and regulatory frameworks (which, because they are often far less dynamic than ecological systems, are frequently a restrictive factor) affect ecological restoration of novel ecosystems. For natural scientists, issues of human behavior and values are less familiar than those of biologic composition or function. However, because novel ecosystems are driven and maintained by anthropogenic influences and are therefore an interlinked system of people and nature, social questions must be asked in order to generate insights into the systems’ management and restoration. We at SESYNC are hopeful that Dr. Perring’s time with us will help him identify new intellectual and policy-relevant challenges to the study and management of novel ecosystems.

Further reading:
Hobbs R. J., Higgs E. S. & Hall C. (Eds.). (2013). Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order. John Wiley & Sons.

Perring M. P., Standish R. J., Hulvey K. B., Lach L., Morald T. K., Parsons R., Didham R. K. & Hobbs R. J. (2012). The Ridgefield Multiple Ecosystem Services Experiment: Can restoration of former agricultural land achieve multiple outcomes? Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 163, 14–27. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2012.02.016


What is the recipe for a sustainability research center?

March 4, 2013

Faculty Research Assistant

Solving complex environmental problems requires expertise from multiple disciplines and perspectives. Yet experts working in diverse fields on the same topic use different language, methods, and tools and ask fundamentally disparate questions—which in turn produces a complicated, uncertain, and sometimes even contradictory body of results that is difficult for non-experts to make sense of. Understandably, households, companies, and governments trying to make informed decisions can be confused about how to use this multitude of results.

Similarly, researchers studying complex environmental problems can find it frustrating when their results are not put into practice. Research has shown that social and political dynamics have a remarkable influence on the ways in which scientific research informs, or fails to inform, the decisions made by policy-makers, business leaders, and individuals. Therefore, the solutions to many environmental problems are transdisciplinary—they require collaboration amongst experts in different fields. But how and where do those collaborations happen?

SESYNC at the University of Maryland, University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability are some of the places working to produce research that can be effectively used by decision-makers. The deans and directors of these institutions came together in a session at the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, MA, to discuss how the organizational structures of their institutions actually facilitate interdisciplinary research. While a traditional university model fosters the creation of academic specialists, sustainability research centers are designed to facilitate research by groups of specialists that have vastly differing backgrounds, approaches, and perspectives on environmental problems.

Scientific enterprise in universities is traditionally structured around disciplinary boundaries where faculty members are incentivized to advance fundamental knowledge in their field. The organizational (e.g., tenure and promotion process, staffing models, administration) and even physical structure of a typical university campus reflects this academic “silo” mentality, and perpetuates the effective collaboration of faculty and students within well-defined areas of research. In the past, collaborating with non-academics, or even researchers from a different part of campus, was a risky endeavor for faculty members working within traditional academic settings.

SESYNC and other sustainability-focused research centers are experimenting with institutional models that facilitate research that is more likely to make an impact beyond the academic community. These places prioritize actionable research portfolios and communication networks between scientists and non-academics, and have flexible organizational models to accommodate the dynamic nature of research topics being addressed. Creating a rigorous academic culture centered on actionable science requires leaders of these institutions to develop new metrics to evaluate the success of their more ambitious but novel goals. How will they measure the success of a new communication network? How will non-traditional research outputs be considered in promotion processes? What institutional support is necessary for successful interdisciplinary collaborations?

Highly-motivated and collaborative faculty members that were frustrated by not seeing their research used to solve problems are now finding homes in institutions like SESYNC, where research with actionable results that cross social, economic, political, and natural science disciplines is prioritized. These institutions are thoughtfully considering how to make the best use of their faculty’s diverse talents and harness that expertise towards meaningful outcomes.


“The world is more wicked than our disciplines.”

February 11, 2013

Assistant Director, Education and Outreach

The world is more wicked than our disciplines.”

– Dr. Herb Childress, Dean of Research and Assessment, Boston Architectural College

In Florida, a state task force has recommended that universities change the way they assign tuition rates, based upon the major a student chooses. The recommendation and the resulting furor and controversy reflect a fundamental debate facing higher education today: What is the value of higher education? According to the task force, the value is all economic. Florida’s universities should charge different tuition rates based upon the needs of the Florida job market. Under this proposal, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) majors would be charged lower tuitions, while social science and humanities majors would end up paying more.

Not everyone agrees with the Florida task force. Dr. Herb Childress, Dean of Research and Assessment at Boston Architectural College, reminded the audience in his opening plenary at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) conference, that one purpose of higher education is to prepare students for the future. We need to be mindful, he said, that the future is full of Wicked Problems—urgent problems that are ill-defined, dynamic, complex, public, and often intractable. Examples of Wicked Problems include global climate change, water resource management, biodiversity, and sustainable development. How do we prepare our students to deal with these problems that will have profound impacts on their lives? To begin, we need to define the value of higher education, and liberal arts in particular, as more than disciplinary content knowledge. As Dr. Childress emphasized, higher education should reflect the interdisciplinary nature of our Wicked Problems, and educators should strive to develop the interdisciplinary, collaborative, civic, and leadership skills that our students will need to manage these problems.

So what needs to be done to move towards this goal? I gathered several insights at some of the AAC&U conference sessions and talks, but I found two particularly relevant to SESYNC. First, in a discussion on the “intersection between innovation and ethics,” Dr. Deborah Johnson, Professor of Applied Ethics at the University of Virginia, pointed out that the greatest barrier to interdisciplinary work across the STEM disciplines and social sciences/humanities is the attitude that “STEM seeks truth and is impartial. [In reality], science and technology shapes and is shaped by society.” Thus, changing this attitude is critical in enabling the interdisciplinary work between the natural and social sciences that the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) facilitates. These kind of cultural changes take time, but as more voices—including those from the SESYNC community—insist on the importance of studying science in the context of society, progress is being made.

The second insight came from a session on “creating institutional change for next generation STEM learning.” Dr. Judith Ramaley, Distinguished Professor of Public Service at Portland State University and President Emerita of Winona State University, described her vision for higher education and STEM education, which might be summarized with her point that “we [higher education] need to develop transdisciplinary approaches to the study of STEM, guided by a problem-based curriculum.” Dr. Ramaley emphasized the importance of applying STEM knowledge in an interdisciplinary way to make progress on local and global challenges, and provided several examples from Winona State for how she created an institutional culture to support this critical goal. These included the implementation of annual campus-wide “signature themes” focused on critical challenges such as water.

As higher education institutions shift towards this vision of higher education shared by Ramaley and others, the SESYNC community has an important opportunity. By demonstrating how synthesis research across natural and social sciences can provide useful, “actionable” knowledge for decision-makers, and by advancing the teaching of socio-environmental synthesis to train future researchers and to increase science and environmental literacy, SESYNC can add a strong voice in answering the question: What is the value of higher education? The value is in the future and in the way we prepare our students for the challenges that lie ahead.


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