HMEI awards $900,000 to support innovative research that probes challenges related to climate change and opportunities for a new energy future

Tom Garlinghouse ・ For the High Meadows Environmental Institute

The High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) has announced awards totaling $900,000 to support cutting-edge research projects focused on multi-disciplinary aspects of the climate and energy problem as part of its Climate and Energy Challenge. Nine Princeton faculty, representing 8 academic departments in the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering disciplines have received funding as an outcome of this recent call for proposals.

The Climate and Energy Challenge is one of four programming activities that comprise HMEI’s Grand Challenges program — an integrated research and teaching program that seeks to catalyze and inspire multi-disciplinary research and teaching aimed at tackling major environmental challenges for the 21st century. Since its inception in 2007, the Grand Challenges program has awarded more than $22 million to support projects involving 132 members of the Princeton faculty from 25 academic departments across all four divisions of the University including projects focused on climate and energy, water and the environment, biodiversity, urban sustainability, and health and infectious disease.

A priority for the initiative is to incentivize new directions in faculty research and to stimulate collaborations across disciplinary lines. Grand Challenges research awards are distinctive in the promotion of student involvement as integral contributors to the research enterprise. Priority in the funding regimen is given to investigators who  demonstrate commitment to the research-teaching integration.

The six projects funded in the current round include projects that probe: (1) how climate change impacts the growth of fungal pathogens with implications for agricultural productivity; (2) the relative socioeconomic impacts of coal mining versus wind farming in communities of West Virginia; (3) how certain aerosols, especially ice nucleating particles, interact with turbulent air flow in cloud feedback processes; (4) the effectiveness of carbon and nutrient budgets for “deep water-fertilized, open ocean seaweed mariculture;” (5) the design and optimization of agrivoltaic farming to promote more efficient land use for agricultural purposes; and (6) how heat stress and global warming may impact the physiology and adaptive resilience of vertebrate embryos.

The following are brief description of the awarded projects:


Quantifying a fungal pathogen’s response to stochastic hydrology: from local processes to global projections

Jessica Metcalf, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs, and Amilcare Porporato, Thomas J. Wu ’94 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, will study the effects of climate change on the epidemiological dynamics of fungal pathogens. Specifically, their work will investigate how hydrological conditions impact the growth and development of these pathogens. The researchers intend to develop a model that will integrate the dynamics of climate and hydrology with soil characteristics and plant physiology to help understand the core drivers of fungal growth. The research is expected to shed light on how global climate change may alter the growth and development of fungal pathogens with negative consequences for food crops grown commercially throughout the world.

Five Princeton undergraduates are expected to participate with the project including laboratory and field research work analyzing Lewis flax (Linum lewsii) and its fungal rust pathogen (Melampasora lini).


Assessing Socioeconomic Consequences of Energy Projects for Host Communities: Coal Mines and Wind Farms in West Virginia

Eric Larson, senior research engineer at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and Elke Weber, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, will investigate the socioeconomic impacts of coal mining versus wind farming in communities located in West Virginia. The researchers will gather data from communities differentiated by their dependence on different energy systems (coal versus wind) to understand the relative impacts and outcomes for household income, gender inequality and unemployment rates. They will then compare observed results with the perceptions the community members hold about the perceived risks and benefits of the two energy system alternatives. This research deliberately follows landmark legislation, passed recently, including the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, that  potentially alters the U.S. energy landscape at an unprecedented scale over the next several decades.

Undergraduate students are expected to participate in field work related to the project. Observations made from the research will be integrated as case studies in a course that is taught by Larson and Chris Greig, the Theodora D. ’78 & William H. Walton III ’74 Senior Research Scientist in the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, with a goal to help students understand and identify approaches for resolving bottlenecks and constraints of rapid energy-system transitions.


Aerosol-Cloud-Turbulence interactions

Luc Deike, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, and Marissa Weichman, assistant professor of chemistry, will explore the role of ice nucleation — an important process in cloud formation physics — to better understand the dynamics of aerosol-cloud-turbulence interactions. Using a novel experimental cloud chamber, the researchers will investigate the efficiency of various types of aerosol particles to seed ice nucleation and cloud droplet growth. Ice nucleating particles have particularly important roles in cloud freezing processes, precipitation formation, and cloud radiative properties, and are therefore critical for understanding weather and climate. A better understanding of this process has potential to improve climate predictability in the coming decades.

Undergraduate interns will assist Deike and Weichman in projects using the cloud chamber and engage in research during the summer that spans atmospheric chemistry, spectroscopy, the physics of turbulence and aerosol science.


Deep water-fertilized, open ocean seaweed mariculture: A field study

Daniel Sigman, the Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, will lead research to characterize the carbon and nutrient budgets of a “deep water-fertilized, open ocean seaweed mariculture” (DWFS) platform in the Camotes Sea, off the Philippines. DWFS platforms are designed to cultivate seaweeds in open ocean surface waters. These seaweeds, in turn, are used commercially for food, feed, fertilizer, fiber, biofuel and the long-term sequestration of anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the deep ocean. In particular, the researchers will assess the effectiveness of these platforms for carbon sequestration by quantifying the fractions of seaweed carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus exported to ocean depths as opposed to being cycled into the surface ocean ecosystem.

HMEI summer interns, senior thesis students, and graduate students will travel to the Philippines to collect samples and undertake laboratory analysis. Insights from the project will be discussed in Sigman’s course “Climate: Past, Present and Future.”


Design and Optimization of Agrivoltaic Farms

Elie Bou-Zeid, professor of civil and environmental engineering, will investigate how solar photovoltaic (PV) cells can be optimized to hasten the sustainability and efficient growth of plant crops. This method, called agrivoltaics, is increasingly employed as a strategy for utilizing crop lands more efficiently, especially in urban settings, with additional benefits for reducing greenhouse emissions. A goal of the project is to analyze the complex interplay between mass, momentum, and heat exchange that occurs on the molecular level and to develop a model of an efficient agrivoltaic system that can be used at scale with positive outcomes for food and energy production in the urban setting. Undergraduate students are expected to participate in the measurement, analysis and design aspects of the project.


Identifying novel genetic mechanisms of embryonic resilience to heat stress and global warming

Shane Campbell-Staton, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, will study the effects of heat stress on embryonic life by identifying genes in the brown anole lizard, Anolis segrei, that may confer greater resilience to embryos that are exposed to heat stress. Over the next 100 years, Earth’s temperature may rise by as much as 4-5° C due to anthropogenic climate change. Many organisms are only able to maintain optimal performance over a limited range of temperatures. Campbell-Staton’s work will seek a greater understanding of how the fitness of organisms will potentially be impacted when exposed to temperatures outside their usual range.

As many as six Princeton undergraduates will participate in field and laboratory research related to the project including advanced training in field biology and genetic analysis, and also learn genetic engineering techniques using CRISPR-Cas9.