November 29, 2021
William & Mary’s Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment had its genesis about a decade ago after members of the university’s Board of Visitors expressed interest in encouraging new research, especially interdisciplinary initiatives.
Dennis Taylor, a professor emeritus in marine science, has been the CCEE acting Director since its inception. Working out of the VP for Research Dennis Manos’ office, he began by seeking out new research emphasizing interdisciplinary groups.
“Some of the goals of the CCEE were to try and leverage relatively small sums of money to entice faculty from various disciplines to come together around a problem,” Taylor explained.
The idea was to start developing research programs that could attract external grants and then become self-sustaining. Taylor said the CCEE had a success story early on, with a group that included some faculty in the W&M School of Law, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and the university’s program in environmental studies.
“We initiated that with about a $10,000 to $15,000 grant,” he said. “And eventually, over the next two or three cycles, we added some additional money to that group, and it expanded. It’s now the Coastal Policy Center of the Law School. This also spawned a second permanent group at VIMS: the Center for Coastal Resource Management. Both of these have been wildly successful in terms of getting extramural funding over the years.”
Another success story was an interdisciplinarity study of the demographics, population dynamics, and tick-borne disease. It involved faculty members from the departments of sociology and biology. This work has received significant federal funding.
The CCEE funding comes directly from Manos, a cofounder of the center. Taylor said that he believes the Commonwealth Center for Energy and the Environment has been financially sustainable in terms CCEE-seeded project funding and external support. He also said that he and Manos often debate how to measure the success of the CCEE funding.
“And my answer has been that, you know, if it was baseball, we’re probably batting around .383-.390. Okay?” Taylor said. “And that ain’t bad. In addition, over time the proposals we see are more innovative, ambitious and rigorous, suggesting we are viewed as a quality source of funding”
Each semester, the CCEE invites proposals for funding. Below are brief synopses of projects that have been funded.
Diatom-based functional material with a low carbon footprint
Hannes C.Schniepp Department of Applied Science
Diatoms, tiny single-cell algae, produce approximately 20 percent oxygen in the atmosphere. They also leave behind an organically mineralized silica shell. The project seeks to harness the sophisticated properties and the glass-like shell component known as the “frustule” of diatoms to develop new environmentally sustainable materials.
Frustules have a long list desirable material properties, including durability, chemical inertness, and the ability to stay stable at high temperatures. The CCEE support will help to advance plans for breeding diatom species, which could be useful in advanced materials. Living algae produce oxygen and the harvested frustules are used as fillers in polymer-mix materials.
Diatoms as a new carbon neutral/negative synthetic biology chassis for novel materials development and bioremediation
Margaret Saha Department of Biology • Dana Willner, Department of Computer Science • Hannes Schniepp and Eric Bradley, Department of Applied Science
This project is in collaboration with Hannes Schniepp’s carbon-negative diatom project. The first goal of the project is to identify and characterize diatoms that are especially interesting. This will be done using RNA Seq to identify the species or strains with the most desirable characteristics.
The lab will use the genetic information obtained by sequencing to apply bioengineering techniques and principles to improve diatoms. Diatoms can be genetically programed to produce many useful enzymes.
Advanced Teaching and Research Directions in Atmospheric Carbon Aerosols
Department of Chemistry, Nathanael M. Kidwell
“Brown carbon” refers to aerosols produced by combustion at relatively low temperatures. They are an essential component of atmospheric Chemistry, increasing light absorption and warming cloud-forming droplets. Models of atmospheric chemistry, global climate, and the relationship between clouds & aerosols remain a source of uncertainty.
The study focuses on the chromophores of brown carbon — the part of the molecule that gives color to brown carbon — and in their relationship with nitrogen heterocycles. The lab includes undergraduates and graduate students from William & Mary. They use spectroscopy and other methods for updating atmospheric aerosol models.
Unrealized Radon Hazards In Eastern Virginia: Characterizing Threats and Increasing Public Awareness
Jim Kaste, Department of Geology, Environmental Science & Policy Program • C. Rick Berquist, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy • Dorothy Ibes, Environmental Science & Policy Program
Radon is an odorless, radioactive gas that is produced naturally from radioactive decay in rocks or sediments. Radon gas infiltration into structures is dangerous and is the leading cause for lung cancer among non-smokers. The U.S. government has created radon risk maps, but these maps do not account for small-scale variations in soil and geology.
The result is that federal maps place areas east of I-95 in “low” radon hazard area, but localized geologic formations create conditions of much higher radon risk in certain areas of Williamsburg/James City County. Students and faculty in William & Mary’s Department of Geology have compiled indoor radon readings above the EPA’s action limit.
The CCEE support is being used by the collaborators to create a public radon-hazard map of Williamsburg and continue sampling.
Exploring the Impacts of Accessible Geospatial Information
Seth Goodman and Ariel BenYishay from AidData, Global Research Initiative
A product of GRI’s AidData, GeoQuery allows users with limited geospatial-data skills a simple way to access the vast and growing compendiums of data collected from satellites and sensors. These datasets are being used by researchers around the world to assess a variety of conditions. Satellite imagery of nighttime lights, for example, is being used by researchers around the world to assess economic activity and development.
AidData researchers will be able to use the CCEE support to better understand the diverse GeoQuery user base and to revise the data types it provides.
Integrating research and teaching to evaluate food system adaptation in order to achieve long-term sustainability
Zach Conrad Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences
The William & Mary Sustainability Plan, 2019-2024, calls for academic engagement that involves students with early-career faculty. This project facilitates students with early-career faculty to study various aspects related to food system sustainability through the Nutritional Ecdemiology and Food System Laboratory at William & Mary.
The CCEE funding will support students working in Conrad’s Nutritional Epidemiology and Food Systems Lab. Experiential opportunities include external internships, capstone projects, and invited speakers.
Interdisciplinary Approaches in Virginia to Energy, Politics, and Culture
Andrea Wright, Department of Anthropology.
The U.S. continues to change its energy policies rapidly, with Virginia being no exception. The commonwealth was recently required to implement carbon-free energy sources by 2045 by legislation. Large-scale solar projects are being built across the state to achieve this goal.
This energy-source pivot has many implications. It can have major changes in work skills and corporate and governmental policies, as well as land use. The CCEE support broadens this project’s investigation of how communities respond to the new green energy initiatives, to incorporate the roles of historic inequalities and of the retraining programs necessary to support Virginia’s changing energy grid.