More frequent bridge failures are one of the risks the public faces from a changing climate. But policymakers soon may have help prioritizing which bridges to strengthen first, thanks to new research funding from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

A new project assessing the impact of climate change on bridge infrastructure is one of seven Environmental Venture Projects selected for funding this week by the Stanford Woods Institute, which advances interdisciplinary research aimed at finding practical solutions to major environmental and sustainability challenges. Other projects include an “eDNA” breakthrough for measuring marine animal populations and a natural approach to controlling snails that carry a debilitating parasitic infection.

The seven innovative projects will receive grants totaling $1,249,422 during the next two years to tackle a broad range of challenges. The projects were selected by an interdisciplinary faculty committee led by Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellows Jenna Davis and Jamie Jones.

Solutions-focused research

Woods is working to produce breakthrough environmental solutions that protect and nurture our planet while meeting the vital needs of people today and of generations to come. Woods is working on campus and around the globe to invest in solutions-focused, interdisciplinary research to advance environmental decision-making by convening global experts and stakeholders, and to develop the next generation of environmental leaders.

Environmental Venture Projects (EVPs) are catalytic, transformative and often high-risk projects that have the potential to develop solutions to major environmental changes. They represent new collaborations among Stanford faculty who have not previously worked together. More than 119 faculty members have had EVPs funded since the program began in 2004. This year’s awards include seven teams with 19 faculty members, nine of whom are participating for the first time. They represent four departments for the first time: physics, urology, bioengineering and immunology.

Track record of success

Woods has awarded more than $8.5 million in EVP grants to 56 research teams working in 24 countries since the annual program started in 2004. These projects have garnered more than $39 million in follow-on funding and have involved faculty from all of Stanford University’s seven schools. Woods is the hub of environmental research at Stanford University. It shares knowledge with leaders in the public, private and nongovernment sectors and develops global environmental leadership.

This year, one of the projects, the eDNA marine animal population measurement tool, will be funded by The Seaver Institute, which provides seed money to creative individuals pursuing their passion with innovative projects that have the potential to catalyze change.

“The proposals submitted to this year's EVP competition were amazingly broad and represent the most exciting qualities of research at Stanford. They were intellectually rigorous, leading edge, interdisciplinary and solutions oriented. It was no minor challenge picking the top proposals from this field,” said Jones.

Previous EVPs have resulted in clean drinking water in Africa, biodegradable plastic from waste gas, protection for endangered species in California, biodegradable composite boards for construction, clean energy from wastewater, and low-cost mobile toilets in Haiti.

The 2013 Environmental Venture Projects are:

“Assessing Climate Change Impact on Transportation Infrastructure Vulnerability and Sustainability”

The principal investigator is Sarah Billington, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Team members are Noah Diffenbaugh, assistant professor of environmental earth system science; and David Freyberg and Oliver Fringer, both associate professors of civil and environmental engineering.

This project, which brings together the disciplines of structural engineering, climate science, hydrology and environmental fluid mechanics, will study the impact of climate change on infrastructure vulnerability with a focus on scour, which is the primary cause of highway bridge failure in the United States. Climate change is expected to increase the vulnerability of our built infrastructure to scour. Current assessment methods are based on existing climate conditions and don’t take the increased frequency and severity of climate events into consideration. In order to better predict scour, researchers will link climate, river and sediment dynamics, and impacts for a wide range of bridges and configurations, allowing policymakers to make sound choices in prioritizing infrastructure renewal.

“Connecting Aboriginal Land Use Management Strategies, Mammal Extinction Rates and Shifts in Fire Regimes in a Changing Climate: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Inform Conservation Strategies for Threatened Species in the Australian Western Desert”

The lead principal investigator is Rebecca Bliege Bird, associate professor of anthropology. Team members are Risa Wechsler, assistant professor of physics; Douglas Bird, senior research scientist in anthropology; and Luis Fernandez, research associate.

Recent efforts in Australia’s Karlamilhi National Park to sustain endangered species populations and reintroduce locally extinct species have been largely unsuccessful. Studies have linked the loss of mammal biodiversity to the loss of complex desert landscapes that were maintained with controlled fires by hunters from Aboriginal communities. This study will develop a model that helps Australian environment conservation specialists understand the tangible benefits that Martu tribe members derive from the landscapes they have created and maintain. The goal is to simultaneously promote species conservation while supporting Martu traditional livelihoods. The models developed for balancing biodiversity conservation with cultural sustainability will have broad applications throughout much of arid Australia. 

“eDNA for Quantitative  Macroorganism Marine Animal Monitoring of Ocean Waves”

The principal investigator is Alexandria Boehm, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. Team members are Larry Crowder, professor of biology at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station; Ryan Kelly, visiting fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions; and Kevan Yamahara and Jesse Port, both early career fellows at the Center for Ocean Solutions.

Obtaining a census of marine life is important to understanding changes in marine ecosystems that result from stressors such as overfishing, ocean acidification, hypoxia, pollution and biological invasions. Traditional monitoring depends on individuals who count marine populations. It is invasive, expensive time-consuming and error-prone. This project proposes to measure marine populations more efficiently by sequencing environmental DNA (eDNA) in water samples – that is, evaluating tissue cells and waste shed by marine life to measure the distribution, diversity and abundance of the organisms present.  It would fulfill an urgent need for accurate and efficient marine animal monitoring tools. It would be especially useful for identifying the presence of endangered animals, migrating animals, marine mammals or invasive species.

“High Throughput Precision Measurement Tools for Insect-Parasite Ecology in Field Settings”

The lead principal investigator is Manu Prakash, assistant professor of bioengineering. He is joined by David Schneider, associate professor of microbiology and immunology.

Insect-borne diseases are one of the largest causes of human death, yet we have no way of predicting and controlling outbreaks. Due to the lack of measurement tools, we know very little about the ecological factors that influence vector-parasite interactions. This project proposes a device that will screen insect vectors in their natural habitat with minimal human intervention. It will use hydrogel-based low-cost microfluidic chips, baited with odorants, to capture single nanoliter volume droplets of saliva per insect bite from thousands of individual mosquitoes and test for both vector species and pathogens. The goal is to identify vector species and the parasites they harbor in a scalable, efficient and cost-effective manner that would be a major breakthrough for our ability to study insect-parasite interactions at ecological scale. It may lead to early warning systems for epidemics, monitoring of the evolution of insecticide resistance and a better understanding of how vector-borne diseases are transmitted.

“Lead Contaminated Topsoil and Food in Rural Bangladesh”

The principal investigator is Stephen Luby, professor of medicine. Team members are Scott Fendorf, professor of environmental earth system science; Pascaline Dupas, assistant professor of economics; and Rosamond Naylor, professor of environmental earth system science and director of the Program on Food Security and the Environment.

Human exposure to lead in the environment causes irreversible impairment of intellectual function. In Bangladesh, where some rural residents have unexpectedly high levels of lead in their blood, the source is proving difficult to pinpoint. This project will evaluate the severity of lead poisoning in rural Bangladesh and identify the pathway of exposure to help develop of focused prevention strategies. This study is designed to provide important evidence to support policy responses that reduce lead from the environment, not only in Bangladesh but also in other regions where lead contamination is a known risk to health and development.

“New Solutions for Global Control of Parasitic Infections: The Case of Schistosomiasis”

The principal investigator is Giulio De Leo, professor of biology at Hopkins Marine Station. Team members are Michael Hsieh, assistant professor of urology; and Susanne Sokolow, postdoctoral scholar in biology. 

Instead of treating a debilitating parasitic infection called schistosomiasis with drugs, this project aims to develop methodologies for controlling the snail populations that are the cause of the disease in developing countries, particularly those where dams and water projects have greatly expanded freshwater habitats for snails. Traditional drug treatments invariably end up in reinfection, as parasite reservoirs remain undisturbed. This project will introduce river prawns, a native crustacean predator that likes to consume snails, as an environmentally safe and effective snail control option. This approach might offer a “triple win” solution by amplifying the positive effect of traditional drug treatment, possibly eradicating the disease from some areas, and offering a source of protein and marketable goods.

“Unraveling the Great Ammonium Debate in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Using a Novel Underway Analytical System”

Led by Christopher Francis, associate professor of environmental earth system science, this project’s team members are Kevin Arrigo, professor of environmental earth system science, and Stephen Monismith, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

One of the reasons for the dramatic decline of native fish species in the San Francisco Bay-Delta may be massive outputs of ammonium from regional wastewater treatment plants. There is a pressing need to understand the distribution of ammonium and its impact on phytoplankton, the organisms that form the base of the marine food chain. This project will link satellite remote sensing of phytoplankton with a real-time marine sampling system on a research vessel to determine how physical and chemical factors properties interact to control the fate and distribution of phytoplankton in the Bay-Delta. Eventually, this project could result in frequent high-resolution monitoring of the Bay-Delta’s environmental conditions, providing invaluable information for those who use the system as well as those who are charged with managing it.