Institute raises Brown’s environmental profile

BROWN UNIVERSITY undergraduate Mara Quinn, center, works with teachers and students in an outdoor garden at Fortes Elementary School in Providence. / COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY
BROWN UNIVERSITY undergraduate Mara Quinn, center, works with teachers and students in an outdoor garden at Fortes Elementary School in Providence. / COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY

Brown University junior Sophie Purdom, an environmental economist, was sharing tea with a fellow student and geologist in the kitchen at the Building for Environmental Research and Teaching in late October, when their conversation took a productive turn.
“She said she does research on the changing geography of the Arctic as climate change melts the ice there,” Purdom, 20, originally from Oxford, England, recalled. “I was talking about disputes that emerge because of climate change, and we realized there was a strong overlap. So we’re building her research into a conference we hope to have this spring.”
Called “Diplomacy on the Rocks – Disputes Over Contested Islands,” the conference is not yet fully formed or funded, said Purdom. But the serendipity of crossing paths and then collaborating with fellow students from other disciplines in one of three buildings for the university’s new Institute for the Study of Environment and Society, is the kind of exchange the institute is meant to foster, she said.
Launched July 1 with 10 faculty, the institute was anticipated in Brown President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan, “Building on Distinction,” said Leah Vanwey, the institute’s deputy director for research, and J. Timmons Roberts, former director of the Center for Environmental Studies, which has now been folded into the institute.
“Much of the previous work of the center is being continued, and in fact, it looks like there’s substantially more resources being directed at the area of the environment at Brown [through the institute],” said Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology and an institute fellow.
Now in its first semester, the new institute is Brown’s sixth. The others are the Watson Institute for International Studies; the Brown institute for Brain Science and the Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation; the International Health Institute and the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics.
Besides the building Purdom referenced on Waterman Street, which serves as headquarters for the new institute, programming is also located at the Urban Environmental Lab on Angell Street and MacMillan Hall on Thayer Street, said Vanwey.
“Climate change has been a really pressing issue for a number years, so it’s been timely this decade,” said Vanwey, “but at Brown, it’s timely because we have a critical mass of high-quality researchers doing interdisciplinary environmental science, so the return on investment could be very high. We have all of these people primed to do this work.” There are about 45 graduating seniors in environmental studies and environmental science, 44 affiliated graduate students, and 5 postdoctoral fellows at the institute, she said.
Camila Bustos, 21, a native of Bogata, Columbia, and also a junior at Brown, said formation of the institute gives the field of study more “clout.”
“It’s a wonderful initiative for Brown, because we’re actually having people who care about the environment from different perspectives talk to each other,” Bustos said. “The university is giving us a new platform to really push for environmental research.”
The institute’s mission – based on one of eight areas in the strategic plan entitled “Sustaining Life on Earth” – is to foster interdisciplinary research on environmental change, Vanwey said.
“We’re trying to bring people together to do interdisciplinary research that they wouldn’t be able to do in their individual disciplines,” said Vanwey. “So, when we think about a problem like climate change, it’s not enough to think about climate modeling. We have to think about the relationships between the climate system and food production or human health and how to manage human activities to reduce the negative impacts of climate change.”
Although research and education are the institute’s primary focus, Roberts and about 25 students, including Purdom and Bustos, have helped influence public policy by writing the original draft for legislation that became law this year, the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014. While the work occurred before the institute officially opened, it is in keeping with the spirit of the mission, Roberts said.
“It is a research institute, but that research in my opinion can influence [public] policy,” he said. “We really should be influencing policy, preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.”
The law brings climate change into the center of planning for state agencies, Roberts added. It creates the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council and two advisory boards to serve as watchdogs, one with a broad set of stakeholders, the other with scientific experts, he said.
Students traveled to Warsaw, Poland last year, where they saw international climate negotiations in action, then returned home to address such key issues as carbon-reduction practices and cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable development, and adaption to climate change as it relates to infrastructure that could be damaged by rising seas, Purdom said. “It was fantastic to be able to bring back home everything I’d been advocating for abroad,” she said. “Rhode Island has a high proportion of coastline: It’s a common global issue. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience to see that climate connects all of us. So, to transition from the international level to working on this at home in Rhode Island was really key.”
Roberts said students could continue to be involved in follow-up legislation, writing language so bonds include projections of future climate “so we’re not building structures that are going to get washed out by rising sea levels and river flooding.” They also plan to compile a briefing book for the new governor by the end of the month, he added.
There are four areas of focus at the institute, Vanwey said: natural systems, food and water, human health and well-being, and equity and governance. While individual faculty may pursue public-policy work, the fundamental mission of the institute is research, she said.
“The institute on the whole should not be out there trying to lobby the political process,” Vanwey said. “We don’t have standing to recommend policy.”
Another fellow, Dawn King, a visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, said the blend of science and the social sciences makes the institute a great place to aggregate resources and focus on the interdisciplinary aspect of discovery.
One of this semester’s projects involves a group of students working with faith communities, surveying them about land availability for growing food with an eye toward creating access to healthy foods for marginalized populations, King said.
“Having a larger institute makes us a stronger entity,” King said. “And it’s nice to pool those resources – the brain power, financial resources and the name.”
The bulk of the institute’s operating budget is grant money, some foundation funding and federal funding, Vanwey said.
“Our hope is to double the number of faculty we have who are primarily affiliated with the institute, increase the number of faculty around campus who are affiliated with it, and increase the grant portfolio,” she said.
How will Brown measure success?
It will be based on publishing, raising grant money, and “whether we have actually gotten people to work across disciplines,” she said. •

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