U-LINK advances exploration of complex problems

By Amanda M. Perez

U-LINK advances exploration of complex problems

By Amanda M. Perez
From focusing on the immediate threat of an impending weather to helping cities respond to climate change impacts, projects from the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge have made great headway in their research.

The world’s most compelling and difficult problems are complex and multifaceted, but interdisciplinary teams of faculty members in the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge (U-LINK) are creating new knowledge and identifying solutions to address these issues. 

Since 2018, U-LINK has provided funding for 24 pilot programs and initial research support for various projects, which include teams from all three of the University’s campuses collaborating on issues involving climate, health, societal problems, and racial justice rapid response. This work is a mainstay of interdisciplinary inquiry, one of the transformative initiatives of the University’s Roadmap to Our New Century.

Over the past few years, several teams have made great headway in their research—receiving external funding from stakeholders in the community, along with rolling out new interdisciplinary courses that help embrace student involvement in their field of research. 

The following is a synopsis of four projects.

HURAKAN: Improving Hurricane Risk Communication for Vulnerable Populations

The Hurakan Project is exploring ways to improve hurricane risk communication for the public. 

“Hurricane Irma motivated our team to come together as a personal challenge to improve the design of hurricane forecast products,” said Barbara Millet, director of the University’s User Experience (UX) Lab and assistant professor of interactive media in the School of Communication.  

“We have investigated the many ways in which the general public interprets the cone of uncertainty graphic. We found that despite its widespread use, the graphic is often misinterpreted and has several shortcomings. In particular, it does not convey all the needed information. While the graphic provides a forecast for the center of the storm together with its uncertainty, this information may not be as relevant to the public as the size of the storm, the wind and rain distribution, the storm surge, and evacuation zones and routes, most of which are not presented in the graphic,” said Millet. 

Most recently, the team received external funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continue its efforts to develop new visual communication products to forecast risk and uncertainty, including probabilistic information and hazard threat levels and to make the integration of this information easily accessible to the non-scientific community.

“Although our initial work was focused exclusively on the communication of hurricane forecast and threats, we are now extending our work to other weather events and exploring the communication of the dynamic nature of the risk across multiple spatial-temporal scales,” Millet said. “We are focused on improving the public’s ability to make decisions ahead of approaching weather events through effective risk communication products.” 

The Hurakan Project is also partnering with the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

“We are fortunate to be partnering with NWS and NHC on this project, as direct stakeholder engagement often leads to greater impact for the communities we are serving,”  Millet explained. 

“The team’s long-term goal is to contribute to the design of an information provision system that clearly communicates the critical pieces of information to the maximum number of people so that they can make informed decisions about the protective actions they need to take,” she added. 

Other members of the Hurakan team include Alberto Cairo, associate professor and Knight Chair in visual journalism; Kenny Broad, professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy; Scotney Evans, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies; Brian McNoldy, Department of Atmospheric Sciences; and Sharanya Majumdar, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

Hyperlocalism: Transforming the Paradigm for Climate Adaptation 

The goal of the Hyperlocalism team is to create a new method of public engagement for community climate adaptation planning. Specifically, its research is designed to help cities and regions respond and modify community planning in response to climate change. It has received a grant from AT&T to continue its mission. 

Amy Clement, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, noted that the grant helped them develop a citywide climate risk assessment of individual lots, blocks, and neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County. While HURAKAN focuses on the immediate threat of an impending weather event, Hyperlocalism is focused on longer-term climate, versus weather changes being imposed on communities. 

“This enables decision makers to assess vulnerability and risk on many dimensions—such as economic, health, food, water, housing, and environmental—and explore options for climate adaptation and policy change,” she explained. 

The Hyperlocalism team also launched the course “Hyperlocalism: Transforming the Paradigm for Climate Adaptation” in spring 2021 as part of the U-LINK courses initiative. The class offered an opportunity for undergraduates to gain an interdisciplinary perspective on climate adaptation and to engage with community members and fellow students to develop additional innovative approaches to addressing this issue.

Tyler Harrison, professor in the School of Communication, pointed out that, “The innovative part of the course was that we had students present their own ideas for solutions we are faced with in our community. We took this opportunity to invite stakeholders across South Florida to attend and listen to their pitch.”

Harrison said the course helped motivate students to continue engaging with their community, even after the class was over.

“Not only did students have the opportunity to have their voices heard, but partners—including government officials and nonprofit organizations—offered their insight on internship openings for these students to pursue in the future,” he added.

Other team members include Joanna Lombard, professor in the School of Architecture; Sam Purkis, professor in the Department of Marine Geosciences; Gina Maranto, senior lecturer in the Department of English; and Angela Clark, librarian associate professor.

Next Generation of Coastal Structures: Incorporating Ecology, Engineering, Economics, and Aesthetic for a Changing Ocean 

Coastal structures such as bridges, breakwaters, seawalls, and causeways are critical in adapting to the potential effects of climate change. Little consideration, however, has been given to how these structures affect the coastal ecosystems and how they affect the communities around them in terms of property values and other parameters. The link between economic viability and ecological services from healthy environments is a critical component of coastal resilience to climate change.

Combining the disciplines of biology, civil engineering, sculpture, architecture, economics, and marine ecosystems, the U-LINK Next Generation of Coastal Structures team aims to innovate the next generation of coastal design, which will be sustainable, multifunctional, and provide aesthetic value in the context of regional cultural significance. The team notes that the results of the project, which address multifaceted problems, can have lasting impacts in future coastal development. 

The team recently conducted a multifunctional performance assessment of existing seawalls in South Florida, a report that was published as a peer-reviewed paper in 2021. A detailed review of concrete seawalls based on design, engineering, and ecological performance was also performed and the report has just been accepted for publication. Both papers point to the need for a quantitative measure of ecological performance for engineered shorelines.

“Both assessments revealed an overwhelming lack of multifunctional performance in existing structures,” reported Prannoy Suraneni, Knight Career Development assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering. “We found that novel multifunctional designs have the capability of outperforming existing structures and displaying multifunctionality. These include designs which incorporate modularity, textural modifications, and advanced construction methods.” 

​Often, the design goal for sea walls and coastal structures is to prevent coastal erosion and flooding. Kathleen Sealy, professor of biology explained, “only over the past few decades have we realized the critical flaw in seawalls contributing to nearshore pollution and loss of habitat for fishes and corals. Stability alone will not sustain a city or property values, people rely on a functioning and diverse marine environment for their quality of life in Miami.” 

The team also has been working on publishing a paper studying how the adaptation of infrastructure affects nearby real estate prices. 

“It was found that significant gains in property values arose after completion of adaption infrastructure projects,” Suraneni said. “These findings have received significant attention and feedback because people are now realizing that there is a positive and significant return on investment to these infrastructure projects.” 

The team is working on 3D printing and ultimately deployment of two designs that have been discussed with community partners who have shown enthusiasm regarding their implementation. ​For each design, there will be specific goals in terms of the water quality and near shore diversity that will be a metric of performance.

In North Bay Village, a small-scale survey on coastal protection was carried out and now a much larger-scale survey on willingness to pay for coastal infrastructure is being deployed. Heavy integration of U-LINK project research on coastal structures was also incorporated in the curriculum at the University of Miami. In a sustainable construction course taught in the spring of 2020 and 2021, students performed their final projects on addressing North Bay Village resilience and included evaluations from faculty members in architecture, engineering, and marine science. A similar exercise, with a focus on coastal defense systems, is being carried out during this spring semester, in collaboration with the Village of Key Biscayne. 

Other team members include Esber Andiroglu, associate professor of practice in civil and architectural engineering; Kathleen Sealey, professor of biology; Billie Lynn, professor of sculpture; Joel Lamere, assistant professor of architecture; David Kelly, professor of economics; Renato Molina, assistant professor of marine ecosystems and society; and James Sobczak, STEM librarian for learning and research services. 

Characterization and Prevention of Hazardous Occupational Noise and its Negative Health Consequences

This team ultimately hopes to prevent what members describe as the “under-diagnosed, under-monitored, under-reported condition” of noise-induced ear damage that, despite being “completely preventable and avoidable,” affects hundreds of millions of people around the world. 

“We’ve had a lot of really great success in our research, particularly by partnering with the City of Miami Fire Department to work with them during their annual health screenings,” said Hillary Snapp, chief of audiology in the Department of Otolaryngology at the Miller School of Medicine. “We were able to survey more than 200 firefighters to understand their risk perception of noise and understand their behaviors with noise.” 

The team’s research found inner ear damage despite showing normal hearing on standard hearing tests, Snapp reported. “This research enables us to find ways to detect those early changes and develop protocols for preventative measures and potentially including therapeutics to treat individuals who are exposed to hazardous conditions and mitigate those risks in the future,” she said. 

Through the U-LINK grant, the team also has been able to advance lab research.

“In collaboration with acoustical engineers on our team, we’re studying exactly how people interact and respond to sounds in acoustic environments we’re creating in the lab,” she explained. 

“The project was a terrific opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from different fields and approach this important problem from multiple angles,” said Uzma Khan, associate professor of marketing in the Miami Herbert Business School. “I was asked to join the team for my expertise in decision-making and risk perception, even though I knew very little about noise-induced ear damage.” 

She noted that they started the research with some fundamental questions about how people perceive risk from noise.

“For example, we asked whether people have an accurate sense of how risky different types and level of noises are to their health. Do perceptions of noise risk vary by people’s socio-economic background, race, gender, age? And can we predict people’s risk perception of noise from their risk-taking tendencies in other spheres of their lives? To answer these questions, we conducted a large-scale study involving participants of diverse race, age, and occupations,” Khan reported. 

The study found that, “more than 40 percent of the general population actually self-expose themselves to hazardous noise at dosing levels that place them at risk for developing hearing loss,” said Snapp. “We knew noise is risky, but what we’ve really learned is that it starts very early and that most people are self-exposing themselves not only in occupational groups but the general population.” 

Their next steps are to discover how to implement protocols to reduce exposure to harmful noises and to develop therapeutics and protective devices.

“Sound is what enables us to communicate and it’s usually something that is associated with enjoyment, happiness, and socialization,” Snapp said. “So, the risk associated with a lot of the things we self-engage in could go unrealized. Understanding that and creating a better understanding to the general population level we believe is really important for long term health.” 

Other team members include Suhrud Rajguru, associate professor of biomedical engineering and otolaryngology; Barbara Millet, director of the User Experience (UX) Lab and assistant professor of interactive media in the School of Communication; Natasha Solle, assistant professor of medicine; Uzma Khan, associate professor of marketing; and Cameron Riopelle, head of data and visualization services in the University Libraries, and librarian assistant professor.