Research News

New vision for UB RENEW Institute

In a RENEW lab in Hochstetter Hall, students Mindula Wijayahena and Abdullah Islam (from left, sitting) work with researchers (standing in rear, from left) faculty member Shenqiang Ren, student Saurabh Khuje and postdoc Aaron Sheng. Researchers in the lab are working on development of printable conductive materials for hybrid electronics in extreme environments, and evaluating potential human exposures to toxic "forever chemicals" in environmental samples. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published April 29, 2022

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Diana Aga.
“The focus areas are based on identified strengths in the UB community and immediate societal needs. ”
Diana Aga, director
UB RENEW Institute

The UB RENEW Institute has relaunched its focus areas for research, education and community engagement, part of an array of changes announced during the 2021-22 academic year.

The institute’s four new focus areas are:

RENEW, which stands for “Research and Education in Energy, Environment and Water,” is a university-wide, multidisciplinary research institute that serves as an intellectual hub for faculty engaged in those areas.

As one example, RENEW will host a one-day workshop in May entitled “Health Equity Dimensions of a Changing Climate: Challenges and Opportunities,” co-sponsored by the Office of Inclusive Excellence. Featuring proposal-development breakout sessions and perspectives from speakers representing academia, federal institutes, international policy think tanks and local government, the event is open to UB scholars eager to investigate the impact of the changing climate on health inequities. Interested faculty can learn more by contacting the institute at renew@buffalo.edu.

The four focus areas will bring researchers with convergent interests together to develop programs and proposals with RENEW’s administrative and logistical support.

“These focus areas were developed with the input of a transdisciplinary steering committee, which is a new governance framework I established for RENEW,” says RENEW Institute Director Diana Aga, who has led RENEW since August 2021. “The focus areas are based on identified strengths in the UB community and immediate societal needs.

“Once the leaders of the focus areas convene with constituent team members, they will collectively refine the focus area descriptions and aims to comport with strengths and research interests of participating members,” Aga explains. “Faculty autonomy is important to me; hence I encourage the focus area leaders to define their research priorities and long-term goals according to the composition, interests and strengths of their members. I believe this approach stimulates innovation and creativity.”

In an interview with UBNow, Aga shared her vision for RENEW and how her team is collaborating with partners across UB on shared goals, building on the institute’s past efforts since it was established in 2014.

“We will measure our success by the contributions we make to successful projects and proposals, including for large, highly competitive grants that involve multidisciplinary researchers that will have big impact, both at a global and community level,” Aga says. “We are also increasing our efforts to provide educational and research opportunities in STEM for underrepresented minorities, starting from high school students.”

Proposal support, other resources to faculty

One of RENEW’s current priorities is highlighting its benefits to faculty. “For faculty to want to join the institute, we have to offer them something useful,” says Aga, who is also the Henry M. Woodburn Professor in the Department of Chemistry, College of Arts and Sciences. “To accelerate research, RENEW has lots of resources that affiliated UB faculty can use when developing and submitting proposals.”

Recent changes to the RENEW website make it easier for UB researchers to learn about and tap into these resources, including shared instrumentation for sample preparation, characterization and analysis, available for collecting preliminary data at no charge to faculty affiliated with RENEW.

Affiliates can also take advantage of networking events and opportunities, and request support from RENEW staff in developing funding proposals, projects and papers:

  • Database/visualization specialist Zia Ahmed can provide support in data mining, geographical information systems (GIS); remote sensing, statistical analysis and database management.
  • Environmental/ecological economist Michael Shelly can provide technical support for proposals that require environmental economics.
  • Analytical chemist and environmental justice advocate Joshua Wallace can provide advice for designing methods for chemical analysis and sampling strategies, and support community engagement efforts of RENEW.
  • Education and outreach director Lisa Vahapoğlu can provide support in researching funding opportunities, identifying UB collaborators and developing public, private and nonprofit partnerships. Vahapoğlu can also collaborate in the development of broader impact statements for RENEW-related proposals.

UB faculty who would like to learn more about becoming an affiliate of RENEW should contact the team at the institute at renew@buffalo.edu.

Lisa Vahapo─člu works with students at Garden Space.

Lisa Vahapoğlu (far right), education and outreach director at the RENEW Institute, gives instructions on healthy soil promotion and weed suppression using free, locally sourced green woodchips instead of herbicides to participants in the Heart of the City Neighborhoods’ Environmental Stewardship Program: Photo: Deirdre Wright, Heart of the City Neighborhoods

Supporting UB’s Top 25 Ambition while engaging community

“As UB progresses toward becoming one of the Top 25 public universities in the country, I want RENEW’s contributions to this ambition to be inclusive and engage stakeholders, particularly those in the local community,” Aga says. “Our research is highly relevant to persistent environmental and health inequities in this region and the world at large. As such, we aim to leverage our capabilities to address legacy challenges at home and abroad, and strive for a more just, equitable future.”

Aga envisions community engagement as a crucial aspect of RENEW’s work. To broaden RENEW’s reach in Western New York, Aga hired Lisa Vahapoğlu as education and outreach director to have a dedicated point person who can connect with community groups, learn about their needs and identify ways the institute can partner with and offer support to them.

Recent community engagement activities include providing RENEW researchers to speak with health care workers about toxic chemicals called PFAS (also known as “forever chemicals”) that are found in a wide range of consumer products, and connecting UB staff and faculty to a community-based environmental justice program run by Heart of the City Neighborhoods for underemployed young adults.

“Lisa has been a crucial partner, advocate and rockstar since the onset of the environmental stewardship’s second cohort at Heart of the City Neighborhoods,” says Deirdre Wright, director of environmental stewardship for the organization. “She makes a genuine effort to understand our passion of transforming the lives of under-resourced young people in the city of Buffalo through training and development.”

“The goal is to foster authentic, ongoing relationships in our community-based partnerships,” Vahapoğlu says. “While serving as an information and human capital clearinghouse to our partners, we aim to gather insight into the pressing concerns and data-driven needs of practitioners. This, in turn, can inform the development of research proposals that are high impact, meaningful to community partners and responsive to donors and agencies that prioritize social and environmental justice.”

Strengthening STEM professions by cultivating diversity at all levels of education is a RENEW interest. This summer, RENEW will provide support to UB’s EarthEd Institute, which provides free professional development to science teachers in public schools. Aga is also eager to develop RENEW programming that will support pathways to STEM for students from underrepresented groups.

“Diversity in STEM is very important to me, and RENEW is in a position to make university-wide impacts,” Aga says. “I am eager to partner with departments across UB in attracting students to participate in research and educational activities related to environmental sustainability and health.”