Stanford faculty teams offer bold solutions for people and planet

Stanford, California - Research projects that hold the promise of cleaning the air, reducing parasitic infections and uncovering pathways by which diseases are spread will receive funding from the Environmental Venture Projects seed grant program of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

These innovative projects selected for funding in 2014 will receive grants totaling $599,000 during the next two years to tackle a broad range of challenges. The projects were selected by an interdisciplinary faculty committee led by Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellows Jenna Davis, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Jamie Jones, associate professor of anthropology.

The Environmental Venture Project (EVP) program is designed to advance interdisciplinary research aimed at finding practical solutions to major environmental and sustainability challenges.

These projects represent new collaborations among Stanford faculty members who have not previously worked together. Almost 200 faculty members – representing all of Stanford's schools and many of its departments – have participated in the 59 EVPs funded since the program began in 2004.

"These projects and the teams behind them represent an exciting cross-section of research that can provide answers to major environmental health and sustainability challenges," said Brian Sharbono, the manager of the EVP program. "We look forward to the results."

Since the EVP program began in 2004, the Stanford Woods Institute, which serves as the hub for interdisciplinary environmental research at Stanford University, has awarded more than $9 million in EVP grants to 59 research teams working in more than 20 countries. These projects have garnered more than $39 million in follow-on funding and have involved faculty from all of Stanford University's seven schools.

Previous EVPs have led to solutions that include providing clean drinking water in Africa, creating biodegradable plastic from waste gas and protecting endangered species in California.

The 2014 Environmental Venture Projects

"Tracing Zoonotic Disease Risks and Immunological Adaptations in Bats, Humans and Human Commensals Across the Central American Countryside"

The principal investigator is Elizabeth Hadly, the Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology. The co-principal investigator is Scott Boyd, assistant professor of pathology.

Deforestation can cause new diseases to emerge, as humans and other species at the margins of agricultural and natural environments encounter one another. This project is focused on preventing public health crises by identifying potential disease risks and informing researchers and health care providers about the pathways by which such diseases are spread.

The project will focus on bats, which are important for ecosystem functioning and also are known vectors of human disease. With increased landscape modification comes increased contact between bats and humans, and a greater potential for disease transmission. Working in a mosaic landscape of agriculture and forest in southern Costa Rica, the EVP team will use multiple approaches to sample bats, humans and human-symbiotic organisms for diseases that can pass between species. In partnership with local doctors, the researchers will do survey work to identify human populations at risk for disease and the behaviors that put them at risk. Then they will synthesize their findings into educational materials and modules for use by local doctors and communities that are scalable to similar settings throughout the world.

"Simultaneous Reduction of Energy Consumption and Contamination of Drinking Water Supplies from Amine-Based CO2 Capture Technologies"

The principal investigator is Adam Brandt, assistant professor of energy resources engineering. The co-principal investigator is William Mitch, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Capturing carbon dioxide is a primary option for reducing climate impacts from fossil fuels over the next several decades. One of the most promising technologies for removing carbon dioxide from power plant emissions is amine-based absorption technology. However, amine-based capture is energy intensive, necessitating increased fossil fuel consumption to achieve the same power output, and reaction of nitrogen oxides in power plant exhaust with amines forms highly carcinogenic nitrosamines and nitramines, which pose great threats to downstream drinking water supplies.

By combining experimental chemistry and computational optimization in a novel way, this project will develop techniques to improve the energy efficiency of capture while simultaneously reducing carcinogen formation. More specifically, the researchers plan to develop a computational platform that can be used by governments and CO2 capture vendors to explore the trade-offs in energy efficiency and impacts to drinking water supplies for different process designs. The project will also provide a rigorous experimental evaluation of concrete, actionable steps that might be taken at capture facilities to reduce energy use and carcinogen formation.

"Quantifying Ascaris: Changing the Game in Sustainable Agriculture and in the Fight Against Parasitic Intestinal Diseases"

The principal investigator is Sindy Tang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. The co-principal investigators are Craig Criddle, professor of civil and environmental engineering; Stephen Luby, professor of medicine (infectious diseases); and D. Scott Smith, consulting assistant professor of microbiology and immunology.

A common parasite threatens the health of millions of people and blocks the way to using wastewater biosolids as a cheap and sustainable agricultural fertilizer. Through the combination of state-of-the-art molecular probes with microfluidic techniques, this project will develop a rapid, sensitive method to detect and quantify the concentration of parasite eggs.

The parasitic intestinal worm Ascaris lumbricoides is a major health concern in the developing world. It infects more than 17 percent of the world's population. Ascaris may be more common in the developed world than perceived, due to the global trade in produce, global travel and immigration. There is no reliable method of detecting Ascaris and its eggs in the environment or effluent.

The EVP team's technology will expedite research to understand the parasite's life cycle and how it transmits its eggs. It will enable health professionals to identify and treat infected individuals and populations, as well as to create effective strategies for reduction of worm burden and egg inactivation. The technology also will facilitate the development of safe and effective agricultural practices using biosolids.

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