Martin Polz - CEE seed funding fosters multidisciplinary research

Program encourages new approaches to grand challenges in energy, environment, and sustainable materials and cities.
Denise Brehm | Civil and Environmental Engineering
May 1, 2014

Two projects combining diverse research interests of faculty in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) have been selected to receive inaugural CEE cross-disciplinary seed funding. The program, inspired by the collaborative research connections identified at the CEE Research Speed Dating event, provides a one-year graduate student fellowship for each project selected.

CEE established the program in January to encourage nontraditional, interdisciplinary collaborative approaches to solving some of the grand civil and environmental engineering challenges in areas such as energy, environment, and sustainable materials, infrastructure, and cities. To qualify for the seed funding, projects must represent a new collaboration involving at least two faculty members who have not collaborated before or have collaborated only on fundamentally different research, and who will jointly advise the graduate student working with them. A small committee of senior faculty served as jurors for the proposals.  

“The aim is to seed exciting and emerging research activities, which are often nontraditional with respect to conventional groups and disciplines, but which carry high potential for game-changing impact and visibility,” says Professor Markus Buehler, head of CEE. “The proposals selected for funding exemplify the tremendous potential of collaborative work in the department. The seed funding supports amazing research that provides new opportunities for our students to work on cutting-edge projects, features significant intellectual merit, and adds value to our research portfolio.”

One of the two winning projects is “Decentralized and Adaptive Environment Resource Management Strategies,” led by Professor Dennis McLaughlin, a hydrologist who specializes in water resources and data assimilation for diverse systems, and Assistant Professor Saurabh Amin, who creates robust control algorithms for cyber-physical infrastructures with an emphasis on unreliable and insecure conditions. The team will investigate the decentralized management of environmental resources, building on game theory and stochastic control descriptions of human decision-making. Resources to be studied include common pool aquifer pumping and procurement strategies for meeting the food needs of the world’s growing population.

The other winning project is “Deciphering Coupled Biogeochemical-Physical Processes Responsible for Methane Emission and Consumption within Structured Soils and Sediments,” led by Assistant Professor Benjamin Kocar, a biogeochemist who studies the chemical, physical, and biological processes governing the cycling of elements in ecosystems, and Professor Martin Polz, a microbiologist who looks at the community dynamics and mechanisms governing diversification in wild microbial populations. The team will examine how the physical structure of soils and sediments impacts the production, consumption, and metabolism of methane by microbes. The project goal is to quantify the linked effects of soil aggregate size and microbial community dynamics responsible for net methane efflux from soils and wetland sediments. This is an important consideration because methane, as a greenhouse gas, is about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Project leaders will choose the graduate students to receive the fellowships.