Rice’s Shell Center awards grants for sustainable development research

Three grants announced June 4 by Rice University’s Shell Center for Sustainability (SCS) will allow Rice faculty and student scholars to spend two years researching ways to improve nutrient and water management, reduce carbon emissions and positively impact the environmental, developmental and infrastructure sustainability of the Gulf Coast.

Rice faculty and student scholars will spend two years researching ways to improve nutrient and water management, reduce carbon emissions and positively impact the environmental, developmental and infrastructure sustainability of the Gulf Coast.

“We realize that students and faculty from all different disciplines play an important role in navigating the social, economic and environmental conditions of the world we live in,” said John Anderson, SCS academic director and the W. Maurice Ewing Professor of Oceanography. “These awards allow Rice students of all levels, in all disciplines, to engage in collaborative research that finds solutions for building a healthier and more sustainable environment.”

Improving nutrient and water management

The “Water, Nutrients and Sustainability” project led by Caroline Masiello, an associate professor of Earth science, will study how effectively biocharcoal (biochar) soil amendment improves nutrient and water management. Researchers in the Earth sciences and economics and researchers at Shell Oil Company will advise the team that seeks to establish collaboration between the natural and social sciences to promote sustainable water management.

“While historically, greenhouse gas management research has been focused in the natural sciences and engineering, it is becoming increasingly clear that the success of CO2-mitigating technologies hinges on social science questions as well,” Masiello said. “New technologies are implemented when they are cost-effective and when they are understood by the public, and these are fundamentally questions of economics, anthropology and sociology. This project will seed new research at Rice into the social science aspects of a promising carbon sequestration technique, soil biochar amendment.”

The research will also address water management benefits and the immobilization of contaminated soils and pursue an ethnographic study to evaluate perceptions of hydrologic cycle benefits.

Reducing carbon emissions

The “Rice University Zero Carbon Redevelopment Project” will look at design proposals for Houston’s 5th Ward that focus on urban problems, including the long-term impact of carbon emissions.

Albert Pope, the G. S. Wortham Professor of Architecture and the study’s lead researcher, said any meaningful response to climate change will deeply affect the way of life for most Houstonians. That puts the city on the front line for environmental reform, he said,  but he noted that is not the only challenge.

“Large parts of our cities and the populations they house are languishing from neglect, as they have for many years,” Pope said. “The carbon-free redevelopment plan is an attempt to formulate a holistic response to both environmental and social problems in a way that only a concrete design proposal can.”

Sustainability along the Texas Gulf Coast

“The Stress Nexus of Coastlines: Population Development, Infrastructure Security and Morphological Dynamics of the Upper Texas Gulf Coast” will assess the region’s environmental, developmental and infrastructure sustainability. The project will include research scientists from the departments of Earth Science and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice along with the Department of Marine Sciences at Texas A&M University Galveston. They will use geoscience research to determine the vulnerability of barrier islands to rising sea levels and increased storm activity over the next century.

Lead researcher Jeff Nittrouer, an assistant professor of geology at Rice, said the research will predict how dynamic barrier island landscapes will reshape by way of growth and erosion, and in turn, how this will influence coastal communities, including population growth and infrastructure security.

“While this research will focus on the upper Texas Gulf Coast, the results will be pertinent and applicable to many other low-lying coastal societies throughout the Gulf and Atlantic seaboards,” Nittrouer said.

“All three of these projects include strong multidisciplinary teams that bring together academic strengths at Rice, from architecture to engineering and sociology,” Anderson said. “The teams also bring together collaborating partners from the community and include opportunities for student participation.”

The projects will begin this summer and continue over the next two years. Project details will be posted at http://shellcenter.rice.edu.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.