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Kickstarting solutions: Stanford Earth researchers receive 2019 Woods grants

Stanford Earth's David Lobell, Rob Jackson, Erik Sperling, Dustin Schroeder, Sally Benson, Roz Naylor, Michael Machala, Rosemary Knight and Kate Maher have received funding for interdisciplinary research to solve major environmental problems.

Photo credit Frantzou FleurineUnsplash

Stanford human rights experts, engineers, economists, geologists, marine biologists and others soon will collaborate on finding new ways to combat air pollution, mine wastewater for valuable resources, reduce food waste and more.

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment has awarded nine proposals as part of its 2019 Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP) grants. Both programs provide funding for interdisciplinary research needed to solve major environmental problems. Such problems – ranging from long-neglected tropical diseases to managing groundwater supplies to drought-fueled wildfires – are too complex to be solved by any one discipline alone. The Stanford Woods Institute prioritizes funding interdisciplinary projects that have the potential to make significant strides in addressing such multifaceted challenges.

Since the EVP program began in 2004 and the REIP program began in 2015, the Stanford Woods Institute has awarded more than $15.5 million in grants to 102 research teams representing all seven of Stanford’s academic schools.



EVP grants support interdisciplinary, high-risk research projects that identify and develop real-world solutions. The projects selected for 2019 will each receive grants ranging from $49,998 to $200,000 over the next two years:

Combating Air Pollution: China faces well known air quality problems, which will likely have profound population health effects. At a fundamental level, there is not yet agreement on clinically significant pollution exposure levels, the relative important of exposure durations or the interactive effects of multiple pollutants together. There is also little rigorous evidence on the basic functional form of the multidimensional pollution-mortality relationship. This project will build an unprecedented disaggregated dataset matching four years of hourly pollutant measurements with daily age-specific mortality rates in each of 278 cities in China. The researchers will use innovative machine learning tools to develop a data-driven empirical approach that provides new evidence on these major research questions. They will also engage with key policymakers to disseminate the findings. Grant Miller (Medicine, SIEPR), Lynn Hildemann (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Hongbin Li (SIEPR)

Reimagining Wastewater: Untreated discharges of human excreta threaten aquatic ecosystems and human health. Moving toward

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David Lobell

a system in which every waste stream is mined for maximal value and minimal environmental impacts is hampered by adherence to centralized wastewater treatment, which exhibits a slow rate of adoption, is poorly suited for remote and resource-constrained communities, and requires considerable energy and greenhouse gases emissions. This project will advance a novel biological-electrochemical treatment approach that can be adapted widely, requires less energy and emissions, and produces ammonium sulfate fertilizer and potable water. The research team will investigate this solution at molecular, process and systems scales, with the aim of accelerating its adoption by attracting interest from wastewater utilities and sanitation service providers. William Tarpeh (Chemical Engineering), Craig Criddle (Civil & Environmental Engineering) and David Lobell (Earth Systems Science, Center for Food Security and the Environment)

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Rob Jackson

Curbing Climate Change: Greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise. While policymakers have explored negative-emissions technologies for carbon dioxide, similar approaches for the second most dominant anthropogenic greenhouse gas, methane, remain unexplored. This project will test the feasibility of oxidizing methane from bulk air using a material called zeolite. The crystalline material consists primarily of aluminum, silicon and oxygen. Because of its porous molecular structure, relatively large surface area and ability to host copper and iron, it could act essentially as a sponge to soak up methane. If successful at scale, the approach could restore methane concentrations to preindustrial levels and cut total radiative forcing by approximately one sixth. Robert Jackson (Earth System Science) and Edward Solomon (Chemistry, SLAC Linear Accelerator Laboratory)

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Erik Sperling

Helping Species Thrive: The world’s oceans are becoming warmer and less oxygenated, but the impacts of these changes remain poorly understood. This project will test and develop a new metabolic approach that can be used to map the aerobic habitable range for marine organisms. The researchers will initially focus on the purple sea urchin and red abalone, species of high economic and ecologic importance in the California Current ecosystem. Once validated, scientists, environmental and fisheries managers, fishers and aquaculture businesses will be able to use this approach to flexibly and accurately predict viable future ranges of individual species to guide management, monitoring and adaptive actions anywhere. Paleontologists and geologists will be able to utilize the approach to understand the causes of ancient mass extinctions—our best analogues for future global change outside the timescale of human experience and instrumentation. Erik Sperling (Geological Sciences), Fiorenza Micheli (Biology, Hopkins Marine Station, Center for Ocean Solutions) and Chris Lowe (Biology, Hopkins Marine Station)

Investigating kidney disease Links: Chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) is known to afflict up to 25 percnet of adult residents of arid, low-land, monocrop farming regions in several countries, but its cause or causes are unknown. To help solve the mystery, this project will investigate the environment of persons at-risk for CKDu in Sri Lanka – an important starting point because the kidney’s capacity as a major excretory organs makes it a key bio-indicator. The researchers performed a preliminary study at a Sri Lankan hospital to enable non-invasive, clinical identification of probable CKDu. Using this case definition to enable recruitment and kidney biopsy protocols, the team will assess environmental exposures from water, soil, and rice to determine risk factors for development of CKDu, recruit participants and examine early-stage kidney biopsies for heavy metals and infectious pathogens. Shuchi Anand (Medicine, Center for Innovation in Global Health), Vivek Bhalla (Medicine), Andrew Fire (Medicine) and Neeraja Kambham (Medicine). 

Dusty Schroeder
Dustin Schroeder

Capturing Glacier History: The rate and amount of sea level rise is one of the most tangible and societally impacting effects of a changing climate, especially for the millions of people who live in coastal areas. Improving projections of future sea level requires observing, modeling and understanding subsurface processes across spatial and temporal scales. Although observational data has been collected across much of Antarctica and Greenland, producing records of observations that span more than five decades, no cross-platform time-series of conditions have been produced. This project would digitize, calibrate and release film-based radar sounding data sets for the Greenland Ice Sheet held at the Technical University of Copenhagen. Dustin Schroeder (Geophysics) and Keith Winstein (Computer Science)


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Rosamond Naylor

REIP is intended to forward projects from the solution discovery phase of research to the validation phase and toward adoption by end users. The projects selected for 2019 will each receive grants ranging from $194,973 to $199,996 over the next two years:

Michael Machala
Michael Machala
Sally Benson
Sally Benson

Reducing Food Waste: An estimated one billion tons of food is wasted each year. In India, the pre-consumer loss of high-value nutritious produce is estimated as high as 50 percent for fresh food, contributing to broad food insecurity and malnutrition-induced stunting in more than a third of children. This project seeks to give Indian smallholder farmers access to food preservation technology, which is normally too expensive and risky to own individually. The team designed, built and tested affordable dryer and cooler prototypes that were scaled over a year of product development to meet farmers’ specifications. Next steps include evaluating economic benefits of the technologies and scaling potential to other agricultural products and regions with India-based partners through market surveys, pilot studies, business model development and recruitment of India-based entrepreneurial partners to incubate ventures for cooling and drying units. Sally Benson (Energy Resources Engineering, Precourt), Rosamond Naylor (Earth System Science, Woods), Michael Machala (Energy Resources Engineering)

Ending Forced Labor in Fishing: Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing can account for as much as one-third of seafood imports in major markets, and has contributed to more than a third of global fish stocks being overfished. Labor abuse in fisheries is also pervasive, with nearly 75 percent of workers reporting illegal overwork, underpay and debt bondage. This project will analyze the effectiveness of existing practices and policies across the supply chain – from recruitment to market – to determine how companies and policymakers could better design interventions to reduce forced labor in tuna fisheries. The researchers will use big data platforms to assess the effectiveness of interventions at sea, such as vessel monitoring, and will examine how market mechanisms could be used to incentivize greater transparency and traceability across tuna supply chains.  Jim Leape (Woods, Center for Ocean Solutions) and David Cohen (Humanities and Sciences, Handa Center for Human Rights)

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Rosemary Knight
Profile image for Katharine (Kate) Maher
Kate Maher

Recharging Groundwater: Many agricultural regions of the world require a sustainable supply of surface water and / or groundwater. Massive groundwater extraction in California’s Central Valley has created large, unused groundwater storage spaces – an opportunity for a form of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) in which excess surface water from winter storms or spring snow melt is allowed to move into the subsurface and recharge the groundwater system. This project is developing a novel methodology for assessing site suitability for the approach, called flood-MAR (or ag-MAR). The researchers will use 3D images of sediment texture in the subsurface to rank various sites in terms of ability to rapidly move water to depth, and to develop a flow and transport model that predicts water quality changes. This methodology could provide a cost-effective and reliable approach for growers, bringing the region closer to sustainable groundwater management. Rosemary Knight (Geophysics) and Kate Maher (Earth System Science)

Media Contacts

Rob Jordan

Woods Institute for the Environment

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