The Woods Institute for the Environment awarded $833,000 in Environmental Venture Project (EVP) grants on June 25, adding to the $7.2 million total it has given to fund research projects since 2004. Grants are awarded to projects that seek to solve environmental and sustainability problems.
“What we want are proposals that are high risk, transformative and have the potential to produce solutions to major environmental challenges,” said EVP program manager Kelly Dayton.
This year, the faculty committee received 26 letters of intent that were narrowed down to 11 before an executive committee selected the final five projects to receive funding.
Dayton said projects should also show intellectual merit, innovation and “sizzle,” the committee’s indicator of how exciting the research is and how it pushes the boundaries of science.
“The name of the game is interdisciplinary,” said James Jones, senior fellow at the Woods Institute and co-chair of the EVP faculty committee. “We have to have proposals that have a real sense of interdisciplinary approaches to environmental problems…. One requirement of the program is that you have two principal investigators from different departments. Ideally, they do really different things.”
According to Dayton, the program brings diverse faculties together, particularly those that have not collaborated before, and introduces new scholarly communities to the Woods Institute.
“It’s really… to encourage the cross-pollination of the disciplines,” Dayton said. “That’s really where new discoveries are made; it’s not deep within a discipline, but at the intersection of disciplines.”
Neil Malhotra, associate professor at the Graduate School of Business, was awarded a grant along with Michael Tomz, associate professor of political science, and Benoit Monin, professor of psychology. Their project on corporate responsibility seeks to determine whether environmental practices are profitable for corporations.
“We want to look at… different ways in which people interact with firms,” Malhotra said. “We want to see if corporate environmentalism is profitable and the conditions under which they’re possible.”
According to Malhotra, there has been an increasing amount of pressure on corporations to help the environment in the past few decades, but corporations don’t know what kind of impact environmental practices can have on the behavior of consumers.
“These environmental questions are important things for society to solve,” he said, “and it looks very unlikely that the government is going to be the way for these problems to be solved.”
Another project that received funding from the EVP aims to speed up the detection of bacteria in water.
“One of the gaps in ensuring public health and safety is being able to detect water quality very quickly,” said Sindy Tang, assistant professor at the School of Engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “If you have to take 24 hours, people will have died or at least gotten very sick before the lab [results] will tell you that the [water] is actually dirty.”
The process she’s developing uses a technology called microfluidics, the manipulation of fluids at the micro scale. Rather than test a liter of water for the presence of a few bacteria, Tang will break up a sample into millions of nanoliter-sized droplets. Only then will she add an indicator, which changes color based on the concentration of bacteria. Because she will be testing a much smaller volume of water, bacteria concentration will be higher and the indicator will change color far more quickly.
Both Malhotra and Tang hope their research will have important environmental impact. Malhotra plans on sharing his research with corporations, and Tang hopes her technology can be put in place as soon as possible in water-scarce areas.
Other grant recipients include Craig Criddle, a civil and environmental engineering professor, and his colleagues at the School of Engineering Oliver Fringer and Elizabeth Sattely.