HMEI-STEP Fellows to explore environmental policy, from reforesting farms to virus-based pest control

Morgan Kelly ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Princeton University graduate students Shashank Anand, Glen Chua, Anna Jacobson and Michael Patrick Schwoerer have been awarded 2021 HMEI-STEP Environmental Policy Graduate Fellowships from the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) to explore emerging topics in environmental policy. They represent the departments of civil and environmental engineering, atmospheric and oceanic sciences, molecular biology, and quantitative and computational biology based in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

Their projects will explore topics that include projecting the intensity of erosion for various landscapes to improve land-use policy; the potential climate and air-quality impacts of the production and use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel; identifying American agricultural land best suited to reforestation; and how to effectively and safely deploy insect-specific viruses against invasive insect species.

The HMEI-STEP Graduate Fellowship Program has provided Princeton doctoral candidates in departments outside of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs with two years of financial support and a $3,500 research award. Recipients explore the environmental policy dimensions and implications of their graduate thesis research through supplementary coursework and policy-oriented research.

Upon completion of the program, the students will graduate with a certificate in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP). The program has supported more than 70 fellows since 2000. Descriptions of the projects funded for 2021 are below.

Shashank Anand, Civil and Environmental Engineering 

Shashank AnandHMEI-STEP Topic: Indicators of Soil Erosion and Landscape Sustainability with Implications for Land-Use Policy
HMEI-STEP Adviser: Simon Levin, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Thesis Topic: Landscape Dynamics as a Co-Evolution of Ecohydrological and Geomorphological Processes
Thesis Adviser: Amilcare Porporato, the Thomas J. Wu ’94 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

Anand will work on developing a method that policymakers can utilize to project the intensity of erosion and formulate more sustainable land-use policies. Erosion poses a significant threat to biodiversity and soil fertility. For his doctoral work, Anand is performing theoretical and numerical analysis of the process-based model in conjunction with the available observations to describe the role of ecohydrological and geomorphological processes on runoff erosion and the emergence of landscape channelization patterns. He plans to build on his work by conducting a thorough statistical analysis of landscape topography in conjunction with land-cover data to gauge the effectiveness of different covers and farming practices on landscape resilience. He also will work with The Watershed Institute in Hopewell Township, New Jersey, to examine the potential benefits of small-scale organic farming on the geomorphology and environmental quality of landscapes.

Glen Chua, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

Glen ChuaHMEI-STEP Topic: Ways to Mitigate Potential Risks of a Hydrogen Economy from a Chemistry-Climate Perspective
HMEI-STEP Adviser: Denise Mauzerall, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Public and International Affairs
Thesis Topic: Studying the Climate and Composition Impacts and Feedbacks of Methane Emissions in a Chemistry-Climate Model
Thesis Adviser: Larry Horowitz, Lecturer in Geosciences and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

Chua will study the climate and air-quality impacts of the production and use of hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels. Hydrogen fuel has been identified as a prime candidate for promoting a transition to a net-zero carbon economy. Hydrogen, however, can act as a powerful greenhouse gas and can increase atmospheric concentrations of key greenhouse gases such as methane. Chua will examine the processes that can lead to hydrogen leakage during the production and use of hydrogen fuel and fuel cells. He will then compare the hydrogen economy’s potential emissions to its benefit as a fossil fuel replacement over the whole supply chain, analyzing different production and leakage scenarios. For the second part of his research, Chua plans to explore policies and regulations that would minimize supply-chain emissions and mitigate the possible negative climate and air-quality effects of a hydrogen economy.

Anna Jacobson, Quantitative and Computational Biology

Anna JacobsonHMEI-STEP Topic: Examining Reforestation Potential of Agricultural Land in the Continental United States
HMEI-STEP Adviser: David Wilcove, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs and the High Meadows Environmental Institute
Thesis Topic: Optimization of Energy Systems Models
Thesis Advisers: Stephen Pacala, Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Simon Levin, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Jacobson will work to identify American farms that could be reforested to help mitigate carbon emissions and restore local ecosystems. While reforestation is a goal of the administration of President Joseph Biden, obtaining and reforesting land carries significant tradeoffs, particularly the loss of agriculture. Jacobson will undertake an expansive case study to calculate the environmental value of reforesting 5, 10 or 15% of the nation’s farmland. She will use data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify the nation’s least productive farms and create a map of potential reforestation sites. Jacobson will then determine which of those tracts could support healthy forests, as well as their possible carbon uptake and ecological benefits. She will use data from the Princeton Net-Zero America project to determine if certain tracts would provide more benefit as sites for wind or solar energy installations. Finally, Jacobson will explore existing federal incentives that could help in implementing reforestation.

Michael Patrick Schwoerer, Molecular Biology

Michael SchwoererHMEI-STEP Topic: Utilizing Insect-Specific Viruses as a Means of Biocontrol
HMEI-STEP Adviser: David Wilcove, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs and the High Meadows Environmental Institute
Thesis Topic: Arthropod Vector Tropism in Flaviviruses
Thesis Adviser: Alexander Ploss, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology

Schwoerer plans to study the development, deployment and regulation of insect-specific viruses targeted to invasive insect species. While chemical and biological pest-control agents can have far-reaching environmental ramifications, these viruses tend to be host specific and rapidly lethal. Schwoerer will explore whether and how a housefly virus can be used to combat Philornis downsi, a fly invasive to the Galápagos Islands that is driving numerous species of the iconic Darwin’s finches toward extinction . The Musca domestica salivary gland hypertrophy virus (MdSGHV) spreads rapidly throughout housefly populations, causing infertility and a decrease in appetite that leads to death by starvation. Schwoerer will expand this case study into a broader consideration of the biological feasibility and policy implications of using viruses to control invasive insects, including Aedes mosquitoes in Hawai’i and spotted lanternflies in the Delaware Valley.