Solving today’s environmental issues demands innovative applications of science, engineering and public policy. The Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), launched at UD in 2009, is bringing outstanding researchers together in interdisciplinary projects and fostering partnerships among government, industry and the public to tackle eco-challenges. Don Sparks, DENIN director, fills us in on the new institute’s progress.
In his 31 years at UD, the maverick Sparks has made his mark. He has created an internationally prominent graduate program in environmental soil chemistry in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, authored over 284 scientific publications and three textbooks, mentored 50 graduate students and 25 postdoctoral researchers, and served as an invitational speaker at 79 universities and institutes on four continents — so far.
Sparks also has won over $31 million in research grants and lots of awards and honors. He received his latest recognition, the 2010 Liebig Award, from the 150,000-member International Union of Soil Sciences for outstanding contributions in soil science research.
Sparks’ latest quest is to put DENIN in motion as a catalyst for collaboration in addressing environmental challenges. The institute’s goals are to initiate large, interdisciplinary research projects at UD; support interdisciplinary academic programs and foster the development of new ones; forge problem-solving partnerships among government, industry and the public; and sponsor projects ranging from venture partnerships to public symposia focusing on the environment.
A: I think we have gained a better understanding of who at the University of Delaware and at our other state partners is involved in research related to the environment and what they’re doing. DENIN has provided some great opportunities to get to know each other, to learn what our strengths are and what perhaps we could improve.
DENIN also has provided an opportunity to inform people outside the University about the research going on and to solicit their input on research needs, which can help us focus our efforts. When we interview people now, they know about the institute, and they’re excited about the things that are going on and about the future.
A: One of the major successes we’ve had was getting the Critical Zone Observatory grant from the National Science Foundation (see page 22). It’s one of six in the United States, and it’s addressing a very important issue: climate change and carbon cycling. With this being such a major issue worldwide, having the observatory will certainly bring attention to the University and what we’re doing.
I also think the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory that UD is building is exciting. The institute will be physically housed there, and the new facility will help bring faculty and graduate students together to promote collaborations, enhance competitiveness in securing funding and attracting students and faculty, and provide state-of-the-art core facilities. And we’re currently searching for the Howard E. Cosgrove Chair in Environment — that’s a University-wide initiative that will certainly benefit DENIN and the entire University.
In collaboration with faculty from several colleges, we also are discussing the development of new interdisciplinary graduate programs.
A: We’ve had a number of seminars co-sponsored by different departments and colleges. We’re trying hard to make sure that we not only talk about science but that we also include aspects of policy, economics and social dynamics. We’ve been facilitating the formation of teams of faculty from the sciences and engineering and policy or economics that should prove useful in enhancing our competitiveness in obtaining funding. A lot of federal agencies, for example NSF, are stressing the integration of these areas, particularly for environmental grants. So I think this is one way that DENIN can play a very valuable role.
A: In collaboration with the departments and colleges, the plan is to hire a number of new faculty in the environmental area. It’s a great time to be hiring because so many places aren’t hiring.
We really want to continue to come up with ways to add value to what we’re already doing at the University, to make sure our environmental programs are stronger. I would like for DENIN to be one of the top environmental institutes in the USA and for UD to be viewed as the place where faculty and students who are interested in the environment want to be.