Grand Challenges Awards Three New Investigator Awards on Ocean and Drought Research

Holly P. Welles ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

The Grand Challenges Program has awarded three New Investigator Grants for 2013-2014. The awards support innovative mentorship of undergraduates working on multidisciplinary aspects of global climate change. Two of the supported projects will allow undergraduates to address issues at the interface of climate and oceans. Jorge Sarmiento, professor of geosciences, will mentor students working on Southern Ocean observations and modeling, arranging for them to work directly wit­­­h his group in Southern Ocean research. Daniel Sigman, professor of geosciences, will supervise students working during the summer on oceanographic cruises around Bermuda to better understand how ocean productivity responds to climate change. The third project will allow undergraduates to work on the impact of drought on the carbon cycle, in a collaborative project under the direction of Adam Wolf, postdoctoral research associate in ecology and evolutionary biology; Stephen Pacala, professor of ­ecology and evolutionary biology; and Kelly Caylor, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“All three awards will demonstrate that undergraduates can contribute to path-breaking research that helps advance the understanding of the impacts of human activities on the carbon cycle and other aspects of the Earth system,” said Robert Socolow, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and co-director of CMI and director of the Climate and Energy Challenge. “The projects will provide experiential immersion experiences for several undergraduate students, including the potential for multi-year sequences of assignments starting as early as the summer following the freshman year.”

The Climate and Energy Challenge is one of three long-term research and teaching cooperatives currently being supported by the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) as part of the Grand Challenges program – a campus-wide initiative that was launched in 2007 to address complex global environmental challenges including scientific, technological, and policy dimensions. A critical component of the Grand Challenges program is the integration of research with innovative undergraduate research supervision and undergraduate teaching, with outcomes including undergraduate research fellowships, mentoring of independent projects, and the introduction of new courses to the curriculum.

Since the Climate and Energy Challenge was launched in 2007, nearly $4.0 million has been awarded to support 20 faculty-led research endeavors that advance undergraduate instruction and mentorship while breaking ground with new research on the global climate and energy problem. Project areas have included climate science, climate modeling, energy sources, energy storage, carbon capture and sequestration, and geopolitics of the Middle East. Recent awards have included projects on desalination and carbon cycling in forests.

Through the climate and energy cooperative, the Grand Challenges program has enabled more than 200 undergraduates to be mentored in research experiences on campus and in field locations around the globe; and has added 28 courses on climate and energy topics to the undergraduate curriculum.

Additional information about the newly awarded Climate and Energy Challenge projects is provided below:

Southern Ocean Observations and Modeling: A Grand Challenge

Jorge Sarmiento, George J. Magee Professor of Geoscience and Geological Engineering, and director, Program in Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences, will expand opportunities at Princeton to support ongoing research to revolutionize the data collection and modeling capabilities in the Southern Ocean: a region considered by many ocean scientists as a critical and under-measured gateway between the deep ocean and the surface ocean and the atmosphere. This award will provide an exciting opportunity for Princeton undergraduates and postdocs to get involved in multi-year cutting-edge climate research endeavors related to sensor development, calibration, and deployment; data acquisition and synthesis; modeling; and outreach.

A Sargasso Sea Study of Ocean Productivity Under Global Warming

Daniel Sigman, Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, will focus on the vast tropical and subtropical regions of the ocean to research how the biological productivity of these areas varies with the density stratification of the upper ocean. Undergraduate interns will participate in research cruises to study summertime ocean conditions and collect samples, followed by analyses of these samples in Princeton laboratories. The subtropical and tropical oceans represent the largest fraction of the ocean surface and contain important fisheries, and the overarching goal of the project is to better predict how the biological fertility of these ocean regions will change in the coming centuries. The project will provide new research and educational opportunities for Princeton undergraduates and increase Princeton’s engagement with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, which hosts Princeton student summer interns and several Princeton courses.

Drought and the Global Carbon Cycle

Adam Wolf, postdoctoral research associate in ecology and evolutionary biology; Stephen Pacala, Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and director of PEI; and Kelly Caylor, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, propose a set of field and lab experiments to quantify the tradeoffs between plant hydraulics and carbon budget. Select early-career undergraduate students will have multiple opportunities to participate in the research including internships each summer between freshman and senior year, special course work, and senior thesis support. The researchers plan to: 1) measure plant water hoarding below ground; similar to how plants hoard sunlight above ground; 2) measure sensitivity of leaf transpiration and embolisms in wood under conditions of water deficit; 3) find easy ways to parameterize plant hydraulic controls for a diversity of species; and 4) modify an existing course to teach ecologists coding and wiring from the ground up. They will conduct their research at the USDA Silas Little Experimental Forest and the Rutgers Pinelands Research Station.