Keynote speaker McKay Jenkins at the DENIN Research Symposium.

Not just for scientists

DENIN Research Symposium offers multiple perspectives on environmental challenges

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3:26 p.m., Jan. 31, 2012--Over 150 members of the University of Delaware community filled Clayton Hall on Jan. 12 for the second Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) Research Symposium, an event that brought together speakers of disparate disciplines with a shared desire to address environmental issues.

The event included an introduction to four new environmental faculty members, a keynote speech by McKay Jenkins, the Cornelius A. Tilghman Professor of English, and a panel discussion consisting of five UD professors.

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“This gathering of scholars from around the University, and of activists and others from the community around UD, was one of the most energizing meetings I've been to in years,” Jenkins said. “The initiative UD has taken on the environment, from its commitment to science and environmental policy to its latest investment in the environmental humanities, is promising indeed.”

In his opening remarks, Don Sparks, director of DENIN, reinforced the institute’s mission to coordinate partnerships by stressing the importance of integrating environmental science and engineering research with environmental policy, economics, humanities and social dynamics.

“Over the past two years since DENIN was founded, it has become readily apparent that environmental interests and expertise at UD are broad and extensive,” Sparks said.

Provost Tom Apple spoke about the University’s efforts to strengthen interdisciplinary interaction. He said that with the new faculty hired under last year’s cluster search, the recent environmental humanities initiative and the building of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory (ISE Lab), scheduled for completion in 2013, the University has “created an opportunity for more cutting-edge research.”

“In order to be a campus of collaboration, we need to talk across disciplines, bringing scientists and engineers together with humanities and social science professors and those with environmental interests,” Apple said.

New faculty

The new faculty who presented their research at the symposium included Angelia Seyfferth and Rodrigo Vargas, both of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Cristina Archer of the School of Marine Science and Policy and Andrea Sarzynski of the School of Public Policy and Administration.

After Seyfferth discussed her research regarding the uptake of toxic compounds in the soil by staple crops such as rice, Vargas focused on how biophysical factors regulate carbon and water dynamics in terrestrial ecosystems. Archer spoke about wind power, including her interests in airborne wind turbines. Sarzynski then covered her research agenda, including her studies in metropolitan sprawl and state incentives to support solar power.

Jenkins keynote presentation

Keynote speaker Jenkins then discussed his book, What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World, which he wrote about his personal “free-fall into terror” after doctors first discovered a tumor in his abdomen. Though the tumor was benign, the event led Jenkins to question his own exposure to toxins. 

Jenkins pointed out that United States chemical companies make up a $637 billion industry, yet consumers are often unaware of toxins in their own homes. While some products contain clear labels about the included chemicals, others, such as cosmetics, offer no convenient information. Jenkins asked, “Why would you regulate something for your car engine and not something you put on your face?”

He suggested consumers pay attention to their purchases, stick to plant-based products and eliminate unnecessary chemicals from the house, including old paints, adhesives and caulks.

Panel discussion

Following the keynote speech, philosophy professor Tom Powers, director of the Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy, moderated a panel consisting of representatives from the departments of History (newly hired Adam Rome), English (Jenkins), Sociology and Criminal Justice (Victor Perez) and the School of Public Policy and Administration (Andrea Sarzynski).  Additionally, Holly Michael, assistant professor of geological sciences, joined the panel. Michael has experience conducting joint research projects with economists. 

“These faculty members really have a wealth of experience in working across the disciplines,” noted Powers. “That experience can be tapped to advance several UD initiatives relating to the environment.” 

The panel, with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title, "Getting to Know You: Why Environmental Scientists, Humanists, and Social Scientists Need Each Other and How They Can Join Forces to Save the Planet,” answered audience questions that touched on topics ranging from teaching advocacy training in the classroom to tackling issues like climate change and collaborating with other faculty, including those in nursing and the business college.

Overall, panel members agreed that the biggest environmental problems, such as climate change, are not just an issue of science, but include moral issues as well. “There’s always a limit to science-based decision making,” Sarzynski said.

A poster session after lunch highlighted a number of additional projects in departments ranging from engineering to foreign language and literature studies. Posters addressed topics that included the economic value of watersheds, the visual effects of offshore wind projects, UD resources for geospatial research and teaching and the role of gardens throughout history.

“This is a very exciting and challenging time to be working on environmental issues, and bringing together faculty from different disciplines is clearly an optimal way to approach what are often very complex problems,” Jenkins said.

For those who were unable to attend the symposium or who would like to review portions of it, video of the presentations will be added to the DENIN podcast web page in the near future.

Article by Brittany Barkes

Photos by Ambre Alexander

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