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Inspiring Collaboration: Grants empower experts to tackle environmental challenges

Stanford engineers, physicians, sociologists, Earth scientists and others soon will collaborate to make cities healthier, revolutionize plastic recycling, track and treat viruses in water, combat the illegal wildlife trade and more.

Light filters through trees onto a mossy forest floor.

Stanford engineers, physicians, sociologists, Earth scientists and others soon will collaborate to make cities healthier, revolutionize plastic recycling, track and treat viruses in water, combat the illegal wildlife trade and more.

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment is awarding more than $1.5 million to 10 innovative projects as part of its 2021 Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) and Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP) grants. Both programs provide up to $200,000 per project for interdisciplinary research needed to solve major environmental challenges too complex for any one discipline alone to tackle. The Stanford Woods Institute prioritizes funding interdisciplinary projects that have the potential to make significant strides in addressing such multifaceted challenges.

Since EVP began in 2004 and REIP began in 2015, the Stanford Woods Institute has awarded more than $19 million in grants to 122 research teams representing all seven of Stanford’s schools and working in 33 different countries. These projects have gone on to receive more than $47 million in additional funding from other sources.


EVP grants support interdisciplinary, high-risk research projects that identify and develop real-world solutions. The projects selected for 2021:

Improving plastic waste management: Globally, 359 million tons of plastic waste are generated annually. It is estimated that 150-200 million tons accumulate in the natural environment each year. Much plastic waste is single-use and, thanks to its engineered durability, will persist for thousands if not millions of years. This project aims to radically change the way plastic waste is processed via a new biotechnology paradigm: engineering highly active enzymes and microbes capable of breaking down polyesters in a decentralized network of “living” waste receptacles. In parallel, the researchers are building a quantitative model of human behaviors involved in plastic recycling and are in active dialogue with leading apparel companies, as they explore options for a start-up venture that can scale and bring the technology to market for consumer adoption.  

Jennifer Cochran (Bioengineering), Craig Criddle (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Erin MacDonald (Mechanical Engineering)

Protecting women’s health: Exposure to heavy metals in the environment is a pressing environmental health threat, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Metal exposure during pregnancy has been associated with certain adverse birth outcomes, yet the link between metals and stillbirth risk remains unclear. Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of stillbirths globally, as well as widespread and persistent environmental metal pollution. The multiple potential exposure routes for these metals, ranging from drinking water to food adulteration, complicate efforts to mitigate risks to maternal health. This project aims to identify the sources of metal exposure among pregnant women in Faridpur, Bangladesh, and the potential role of this exposure in contributing to the elevated rate of stillbirth. To do this, the researchers will leverage the framework of an ongoing child health and mortality prevention surveillance study to compare placental biomarkers of metal exposure among stillbirths and live births. The team will evaluate concentrations of various metals in drinking water, soil, rice, and turmeric to identify the likely routes of exposure to metals during pregnancy. This research will inform interventions to reduce women’s exposure to metals during pregnancy and may identify pathways connecting environmental metals to stillbirth, generating policy-relevant data for improving health outcomes.

Steve Luby (Medicine), Gary Shaw (Pediatrics) and Scott Fendorf (Environmental Earth System Science)

Tracking and treating viruses in water: The vast majority of research on human viruses is focused on viruses in the human body; the literature is relatively void of data on virus persistence in the environment. This project aims to fill that void by carrying out novel research on virus persistence in water. The work will focus on two important groups of viruses: one of the most important etiologies of gastrointestinal illness in the world –human norovirus (HNoV)- and the subfamily of viruses responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – human coronaviruses (HCoVs). The researchers will study the persistence of infectious HNoV in water, a subject which has not been studied previously owing to methodological limitations on cultivation of the virus. They will also study the persistence of CoVs including SARS-CoV-2 in water and wastewater as well as their potential for disinfection by free chlorine. There is sparse data to date in the literature on this topic - not a single study has examined free chlorine disinfection of any CoV. The results from this work will have immediate applications to inform de facto wastewater reuse and recreational water quality standards.

Ali Boehm (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Catherine Blish (Microbiology and Immunology), Harry Greenberg (Microbiology and Immunology) and William Mitch (Civil and Enviornmental Engineering)

Improving climate change messaging: Social and behavioral scientists have identified several approaches to climate change communication that increase belief in, and/or concern about, the phenomenon. However, the applicability of this research suffers from its lack of organization, incommensurable measures and sampled populations, and often very underpowered empirical tests. These challenges limit the practical value of this research for scientists, policymakers, educators and advocates seeking to build popular support for efforts to address climate change. To resolve these issues, this project will create a large-scale experimental tournament of 12 promising climate change messaging approaches. The researchers will test the effects of each on belief in, and concern about, climate change in comparison to one another, and to a placebo control. Results of the tournament will be driven to practice through broad media engagement, open seminars with advocacy groups, targeted outreach to leadership in major environmental organizations, and a virtual conference for climate change scientists, journalists, and activists.

Rob Willer (Sociology), Neil Malhotra (GSB) and Jane Kathryn Willenbring (Geologic and Environmental Science)

Monitoring gas pollution in the Arctic: Gas sensing in remote regions and in our oceans is becoming increasingly important for developing mitigation strategies and policies in response to global warming. This project will develop a monitoring strategy based on inexpensive, passive and biodegradable sensors, which can be distributed in the environment without detrimental effects, combined with optical spectroscopy. The sensors are placed in corner-cube arrays that acts as retroreflectors, whose signals are remotely detected by spectroscopic interrogators that can be placed in stationary base stations or on movable platforms, e.g. airplanes and drones. The research has a dual focus of developing the sensor technology and the deployment strategy.

Olav Solgaard (Electrical Engineering) and David Reis (Applied Physics)

Measuring soil moisture from space: Soil moisture is a key variable in understanding both the global water cycle and the local movement of water in agricultural or ecologically-sensitive areas. Present methods of measuring water content remotely are very coarse, mostly at tens of kilometers resolution, and therefore do not satisfy the needs of the agricultural industry. This project will develop a new method of analyzing spaceborne radar data at 10m resolution to meet this added need. Using a variety of satellite data, the researchers plan to test a new processing and analysis approach to yield estimates of soil moisture at finer resolution than is possible with current remote methods. If successful this method promises a powerful new tool for cropland management.

Howard Zebker (Electrical Engineering) and Alexandra Konings (Environmental Earth System Science)



REIP is intended to forward solution-based projects from the discovery phase of research to the validation phase and adoption by end users. The projects selected for 2021:

Sustaining the Upper Colorado River: The Colorado River basin supplies water to 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland, and it provides critical in-stream and riparian habitat. Yet, water law historically reserved no water for riverine ecosystems. Today, the basin’s rivers routinely run so low that severe ecological damage to fish habitat occurs, with 44 of 49 native fish species endangered, threatened or extinct. Buying water to protect ecosystems through private water rights transactions – a proven market mechanism to restore river flows – entails conservation buyers pursuing individual water sellers on a mostly ad hoc basis instead of exercising an optimal, cost-effective regional strategy. This project aims to deploy a novel ecohydrologic-economic-legal model that optimizes ecological preservation. The model identifies the most beneficial set of surface-water market transactions for ecosystems in the Upper Colorado River basin. Focusing on Colorado, this model will inform water-rights markets and help conservation organizations to maximize fish habitat restoration with their existing financial budgets.  The model is the first basin-scale tool for optimizing environmental water market spending in the U.S., enabling transformation of these markets from localized, opportunistic purchases to optimized investment strategies. Indeed, this project comes at a critical time. As the Colorado River continues to experience extreme water scarcity, states are contemplating a new market-based program for interstate water deliveries under the Colorado River Compact.

Steve Gorelick (Environmental Earth System Science) and Buzz Thompson (Law)

Combatting the illegal wildlife trade: The illegal wildlife trade (IWT) is at least a $23 billion/year industry that is greatly reducing biodiversity, degrading ecosystem functions, threatening the world with emerging infectious diseases, and is closely linked to human trafficking, regional destabilization and terrorism. A key limitation in the fight against IWT is an inability to identify where animal materials are coming from and distinguish between legal and illegal products. This project will address this limitation by capitalizing on current genomics technology, new collaborations within the Stanford community and research strides already made to develop a tool to identify the geographic origin of confiscated materials inexpensively and in-country. To prototype this tool, the researchers will focus on African lions in partnership with two government agencies (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the South African National Biodiversity Institute) and three NGOs (African Parks, Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera). Through these partnerships, the information generated will be used to identify and disrupt trafficking routes, strengthen law enforcement, and implement community engagement responses.

Dmitri Petrov (Biology) and David Relman (Microbiology and Immunology)

Empowering small-scale fishers: Small-scale fisheries and supply chains support livelihoods and nutrition for millions of people, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Around the world, fisheries supply chains are becoming increasingly digitized, creating faster and more reliable avenues of market access for small-scale fishers. These new digital tools have taken on an even greater prominence as small-scale fishers scramble to adapt to shocks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is not yet understood if these technologies improve fishers’ livelihoods and influence fishers’ decision-making (e.g., evaluation of environmental impacts and cooperation in conservation practices). This project will investigate these questions through the deployment of a well-established digital platform by ABALOBI with fishers in the Republic of Palau. Using a quasi-experimental design, the researchers will track socioeconomic and decision-making metrics before, during, and after deployment of the ABALOBI app, generating actionable and scalable insights into the role of technological interventions in empowering small-scale fishers and promoting sustainable solutions for fishing communities.

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi (Environmental Earth System Science), Michael Bernstein (Computer Science) and Fiorenza Micheli (Biology)

Making cities healthier: With over half of humanity living in cities today, three critical trends collide: 1) urbanization reduces experience of nature; 2) sedentary, nature-deprived urban lifestyles increase already massive health burdens and risks; and 3) highly uneven access to nature exacerbates multiple inequalities. Yet, the connections between urban nature and health remain woefully understudied. Revealing where and how nature provides greatest benefits to people can inform and motivate investments in urban design with nature. This unique interdisciplinary team will integrate a wealth of new data, science and analytics – through both physical and mental health pathways – as well as deep relationships with urban leaders and networks. By developing actionable science and demonstrating the findings for three iconic cities – San Francisco, Guangzhou and Singapore, this project is designed to inform urban planning and policy, enhance urban nature and its vital benefits, and improve health, equity, livability, and the sustainability of cities.

Gretchen Daily (Biology), Abby King (Epidemiology and Public Health) and Kari Nadeau (Pediatrics)

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