This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

UB receives IGERT grant

WNY ecosystems to benefit from doctoral training program

Published: November 15, 2007

Contributing Editor

UB has received a prestigious $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to train a new generation of environmental experts using the ecological treasures of Western New York and the Great Lakes Basin as a “living laboratory.”

From Niagara Falls to the Southern Tier, some of Western New York’s lakes, rivers, creeks and shorelines will benefit from the new doctoral program, which will involve students in research projects focused on restoring ecosystems in the region.

Potential projects include evaluating the success of local stream restoration, assessing indices designed to characterize ecosystem health in stressed urban environments, developing new simulation models for the Great Lakes and surrounding watersheds, evaluating how pharmaceuticals and personal care products discharged into sewers impact Lake Erie fish and comparing U.S., Canadian and Native American perspectives on assessing and restoring stressed ecosystems.

The 25 doctoral students selected for the Ecosystem Restoration Through Interdisciplinary Exchange (ERIE) program will be among the first in the nation to be trained with a strong foundation in the engineering, scientific and policy-making considerations involved in restoring ecosystems, regardless of the discipline they are studying.

“The primary goal of any training grant at UB is to train world-class scientists,” said Satish K. Tripathi, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “This particular grant will be training pioneering researchers in interdisciplinary methods that are directly applicable to Western New York. In that sense, it is not only the program’s ambitious graduate students who will benefit from this grant, but also the rich, natural landscape of Western New York that we are privileged to call ‘home.’”

The UB grant is one of just 20 awarded nationally this year in NSF's Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship (IGERT) program. UB previously received IGERTs in geographic information science and biophotonics. The program’s goal is to immerse doctoral students in interdisciplinary environments so that when they graduate they bring strong collaborative skills to their positions in research and industry.

“Ecosystem restoration is inherently complex because ecosystems are complex,” said Alan Rabideau, professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and principal investigator on ERIE. “The design process must address the hydrology, ecology and the social and political environment where an ecosystem is located.”

Students in ERIE will have the opportunity to work with faculty in seven different departments in the engineering school and in the College of Arts and Sciences. They also may work with faculty in the UB Law School and at Buffalo State College, Niagara University and several Canadian universities.

Unlike many graduate programs in related fields, ERIE integrates social and policy considerations throughout the program to train scientists who are sensitive to the broad range of values and cultures in a diverse community such as Western New York.

“The goal is that graduates will innately be drawn to socially relevant problems and will have the interdisciplinary perspective to tackle them,” said Rabideau.

Students also will benefit from the project’s partnerships and internships with more than 16 local organizations, including the environmental programs of the Tuscarora Nation, Seneca Nation of Indians and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe; Buffalo/Niagara Riverkeeper; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and U.S. and Canadian environmental agencies.

In addition, ERIE students will have the opportunity to work with Western New York’s Native American tribes on research projects.

“The National Science Foundation recognizes that in order to clean up the environment, you must engage communities,” said Don Grinde, professor and chair of the Department of American Studies and a co-principal investigator.

Grinde, a historian of the environment, author of “Eocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples” (1995) and a Yamasee Indian, noted that several of the watersheds that will be studied under the IGERT grant, such as Cattaraugus Creek, the Niagara River and the Allegheny River, flow through or abut Indian reservations.

“This grant will engage Native American perspectives on the environment, which have traditionally differed from and conflicted with Western ideas about it,” Grinde said.

Students who are accepted into the program through the Department of American Studies, which has a strong Native American studies component, will focus on environmental policy and human ecology.

The idea for ERIE grew out of work that Rabideau and his colleagues have done on stream restoration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Ecology and Environment, an environmental consulting firm.

It also grew out of partnerships forged by UB engineers, scientists and legal scholars in an attempt to address the critical gaps in restoring ecosystems.

“Right now, numerous techniques are being used to restore ecosystems locally and nationally,” said Rabideau, an expert in environmental modeling. “This somewhat ad hoc approach makes it difficult to generalize and improve our predictions of how ecosystems will respond to human intervention. While numerous restoration projects are being implemented by the federal and local governments across North America, the supporting science is still relatively young.”

Students accepted into the ERIE program will help develop and evaluate that science through new methods, such as performance metrics and models, to systematically evaluate the benefit of specific changes made to ecosystems.

“While hydrologists worry about how the water flows in a stream or creek, ecologists worry about how changes in those flows affect the fish and other organisms that live in those waters,” said Rabideau. “In many cases, the ecologists and the hydrologists don’t fully understand the other’s perspective.”

Political and economic considerations add yet another layer of complexity and potential conflict to ecosystem restoration projects, he said.

“This program is unique because it thoroughly integrates science, engineering, public policy and traditional Native American approaches, while also focusing on the importance of educating all of the affected communities in the region,” Rabideau said.

Students will gain experience in translating their research into public education through partnerships with K-12 science teachers at the Native American Magnet School and Seneca Math/Science Technology School in the Buffalo Public Schools. They also will undergo formal training with UB’s NSF-funded Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.

The grant will pay tuition and a $30,000-a-year stipend for two years of doctoral study, plus provide funds for research, travel and internships. Additional support will be provided by the student’s home department.

Applications are now being accepted. Students in the first ERIE class will be admitted early in 2008, and begin their doctoral studies in September.

For more information on the grant and to apply, go to the ERIE Web site.

ERIE grew out of collaborations that were supported by UB seed grants from the Interdisciplinary Research and Creative Activities Fund of the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Regional Institute, the Environment and Society Institute, and the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy.