Artist Robert Rauschenberg's Fish House on Captiva Island

Expanding the horizons of environmental research

By Maya Bell

Expanding the horizons of environmental research

By Maya Bell
Supported by the Office of the Provost, the first Abess Scholars have wide latitude to bridge the gap between science and environmental policy.

One plans to invite students to accompany her, virtually, on all-female expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica. Another intends to explore the realities and mythos of barrier islands through the ever-shifting sands of Captiva Island and the musings of its most famous resident. A third is organizing a workshop on the connections between climate change, water insecurity, and migration.

They are all members of the inaugural class of Abess Scholars, eight researchers who through their innovative work have advanced the Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy’s mission at the University of Miami to create interdisciplinary initiatives that bridge the gap between science and environmental policy.

With special support from the Office of the Provost, the first Abess Scholars, who include seven faculty members from five schools or colleges and one award-winning author, have wide latitude to pursue activities that will increase interdisciplinary environmental education, research, and outreach across the University and the broader community. 

“Their energy and innovative approaches are inspirational to me and to Gina Maranto, my colleague at the Abess Center who has been instrumental in developing the program,” said Abess Center Director Kenny Broad, professor in the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science’s Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society and the 2011 National Geographic Explorer of the Year. “The core goal of the Abess Center is to connect different players across the University who can address real-world environmental problems and each Abess Scholar now has the opportunity to amplify the Abess Center’s mission in their own creative and exciting way.”

Provost Jeffrey Duerk, who over his career has collaborated with multiple teams from multiple disciplines to develop biomedical imaging technology, is leading the effort to integrate the team science approach into the University’s burgeoning culture of interdisciplinary inquiry. He said the Abess Center’s 30-odd affiliate faculty are uniquely positioned to enhance interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship across the University, a key goal of the Roadmap to Our New Century.

“Our mission as a University is to be a hub for the kind of collaborative research that can address such complex problems as climate change or chronic disease, but that can’t happen without a cadre of experienced interdisciplinary practitioners,’’ Duerk said. “The Abess Scholars program will strengthen the Abess Center and the University by identifying and cultivating affiliated faculty who can espouse the values of creative interdisciplinary collaboration and mission-driven research pertaining to one of the world’s most complex and over-arching challenges, the environment.”

In addition to the Abess Scholars, the Office of the Provost supports a number of initiatives designed to advance interdisciplinary inquiry across the University. They include the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge, or U-LINK, and the Louis Glaser Fellowship in Integrated Teaching and Learning, which is accepting proposals through Dec. 1. 

Launched in 2016, U-LINK awards up to three years of funding to multidisciplinary teams who are tackling complex problems. The Glaser fellowship is designed to give faculty the time and resources to expand their knowledge beyond their primary discipline and design new, experimental, cross-disciplinary undergraduates courses.

Three of the inaugural Abess Scholars, who will receive funds and support for one year with the possibility of a two-year extension, are also members of different U-LINK teams, and all but one were chosen from the ranks of the Abess Center’s affiliated faculty. The honorees are:

Natalie Barefoot, School of Law

The practitioner in residence and lecturer in law for the School of Law’s Environmental Justice Clinic, Barefoot supervises two class-action toxic torts cases and projects related to policies and practices that affect low-income and minority communities in Florida. Before joining UM, she was the executive director of Cet Law, a nonprofit that advances laws and policies to protect cetaceans—whales, dolphins, and porpoises—and their habitats. For her Abess Center project, she plans to engage students in climate change and biodiversity issues and inspire young women to explore STEM fields by bringing them, through remote classrooms and video, on two all-female expeditions, one to the Arctic Circle this November, and the other to Antarctica in November 2020.

Alberto Cairo, School of Communication

The Knight Chair in Visual Journalism, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Management, and a member of the HURAKAN U-LINK team that aims to improve hurricane forecast products, Cairo teaches courses and has written text books about infographics, data visualization, and data journalism. He just published his first book for the general public, “How Charts Lie,” which explains how graphs, charts, and maps can mislead readers. For his project, Cairo plans a workshop for the UM community to demystify the graphical literacy that is now so essential to navigating our data-driven world.

Kenneth Feeley, College of Arts and Sciences

The Smathers Chair of Tropical Tree Biology and associate professor in the Department of Biology, Feeley draws on both natural history and advanced empirical modeling to study the ecology and biogeography of tropical forests, specifically how they are affected by large-scale anthropogenic disturbances such as climate change, deforestation, and habitat fragmentation. Through his work, he strives to understand the implications of human activities to help inform management and conservation strategies. His project is pending.

Michael Grunwald, Author

Now a senior writer for Politico magazine, Grunwald has worked at The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Time, and received numerous awards, including the George Polk Award, the Worth Bingham Prize, the Society of Environmental Journalists Award, and the Sierra Club’s David Brower Award for his work. The author of “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise,” and “The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era,” he is writing a book about food production. 

Joanna Lombard, School of Architecture

An architect and professor in the School of Architecture with a joint appointment in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine, Lombard focuses on the intersection of architecture, landscape, culture, and health, especially in relation to climate change. She is a founding member of UM’s Built-Environment Behavior and Health Research Group and a member of the U-LINK team exploring hyper-local adaptations to climate change. For her project, she will examine past and present perceptions of coastal resilience on Florida’s barrier islands by studying the writings of artist Robert Rauschenberg at the time he adopted Captiva as his home and primary studio.

Katharine Mach, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

An associate professor in the Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society, Mach assesses climate change risks and, through innovative approaches to integrating evidence, informs the options for responding effectively and equitably to increased flooding, extreme heat, wildfire, and other hazards. A lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, she co-directed the scientific activities of the IPCC’s Working Group II, which culminated in the Fifth Assessment Report. She is also associate deputy editor for Climatic Change and an advisory board member for the Aspen Global Change Institute and Carbon180. For her project, she plans to organize one or more science-policy workshops that examine the risks and opportunities for managing the changing climate.

Renato Molina, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
An engineer and economist specializing in the economics of natural resource extraction, conservation, and natural disasters, Molina is an assistant professor of environmental and resource economics, a visiting scholar at the Faculty of Natural Resources at the Pontificia Universdad Católica de Valparaíso in Chile, and a member of the U-LINK team exploring the next generation of coastal structures. He focuses on the intersection between game theory, sustainability, and institutional settings and relies on economic insight to inform responsible policymaking for environmental and natural resources management. For his project, he plans to study the effects of climate change adaptation efforts on real estate markets and the implications for vulnerable communities.

Justin Stoler, College of Arts and Sciences

An associate professor in the Department of Geography and Regional Studies, Stoler holds a secondary appointment in the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences and has spent a decade studying communicable diseases and water insecurity in Accra, Ghana. The co-director of the Health Geographics Lab, he employs spatial modeling techniques to explore the geographic patterns of urban health disparities and environmental influences on social and behavioral epidemiology. For his project, he is convening a workshop with population and environment scholars to explore the connections between climate change, water insecurity, and migration.