Three new fellowship awards from Rice University’s Shell Center for Sustainability will allow Rice faculty and postdoctoral research fellows to study ways to promote coastal infrastructure sustainability, improve soil quality with the use of biochar and examine coastal change over time.
“The Shell Center has dedicated $1 million to transdisciplinary outcomes in sustainable development,” said John Anderson, the center’s director and the W. Maurice Ewing Chair in Oceanography. “Over the last five years, the Shell Center funded multidisciplinary research in Stress Nexus 2050. This effort considers that the connection between water, food and energy is key to sustainable development.”
Georgios Balomenos, a postdoctoral research fellow in civil and environmental engineering, will use the award to focus on shaping infrastructure sustainability in coastal settings, a task that is central to the efficient exploration of strategies to promote coastal infrastructure sustainability. The project will focus on the Houston Ship Channel and will include infrastructure level structural solutions, regional level protective systems (both natural as well as structural), along with policy-based actions to allow exploration of the best way to enhance coastal sustainability.
He will be advised primarily by Jamie Padgett, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Philip Bedient, the Herman and George R. Brown Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and will also collaborate with additional project investigator James Elliott, a professor of sociology at Rice. Balomenos will also work with Jeffrey Nittrouer, an assistant professor of Earth science, and Anderson to build on the recent Stress Nexus of Coastlines project, which focuses specifically on the environmental, social and infrastructure impact of sea-level rise on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Yi Chen, a postdoctoral research associate in chemical and biomolecular engineering, will use the award to lead an interdisciplinary project to model the full dynamics of the nitrogen cycle in biochar-amended soils. (Biochar is a derivative of organic matter that can be added to soil to improve its quality and growing potential.) The project will include a comprehensive computational model that will provide information on scenarios where specific biochars are most likely to be effective in soil’s nitrogen retention, an important mechanism for ecosystem management. Working in close collaboration with the other members of the interdisciplinary team, Chen will explore the dynamics of Earth’s nitrogen cycle to answer several questions: How does the addition of biochar to degraded soils (soils with less nitrogen) affect the nitrogen cycle? Which are the most important parts of the soil affected by the presence of biochar? Can biochar improve soil fertility while conserving water and reducing the use of fertilizers? What properties should biochar have to provide these environmental benefits? How will the addition of biochar affect nitrous oxide and NOx emissions from soils?
Chen will be advised primarily by Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Chen will also work closely with the other principal investigators on a related Shell Center project — Carrie Masiello, a professor of Earth science, and Ken Medlock, director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Travis Swanson, a postdoctoral research fellow in Earth science, will use the award to focus on prediction of coastal change over time. His concentration will be the response of barrier islands (long, narrow, offshore deposits of sand or sediment that run parallel to the coastline) to accelerated rising sea levels and the impact of hurricanes when sand supply to the coastal system is minimal.
This research will provide an important scientific framework for predicting coastal infrastructure, economic and social sustainability and adaptation in the rapidly changing coastal environment. Swanson’s project will complement ongoing research at Rice that is focused on producing science that combines field research and numerical models needed to make such coastal change forecasts. He will work under the direction of Nittrouer and Anderson.
Work on these projects began this summer and will last for two years. Anderson said the project support will allow the researchers to make efficient and logical connections to further impact future projects.
“By our bringing together teams to look at social, economic and environmental issues from the perspective of multiple disciplines, teams find broad outcomes,” he said.