EPSCoR annual meeting addresses environmental challenges
Keka Biswas, assistant professor of biology and environmental sciences at Wesley College, and EPSCoR interns Allison Moran and Crystal Weesner discuss a poster at the EPSCoR annual meeting.
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11:31 a.m., June 30, 2009----The Delaware Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant program dedicated to improving Delaware's environment and economy through research and education, held its annual meeting on June 10 at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute in Newark.

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Representatives from the four EPSCoR partner institutions -- University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Wesley College and Delaware Technical & Community College -- were in attendance, as were visitors from NSF, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), private industry and environmental nonprofit organizations.

Donald L. Sparks, the principal investigator on the grant and the director of the Delaware Environmental Institute, which will launch in the fall of 2009, said the EPSCoR program aims to capture the social and economic benefits of scientific research. “We need to grow the science and technology infrastructure of people, facilities, and discovery-based research and develop future scientists and technologists in increasing numbers and diversity,” said Sparks, who is the S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil Chemistry at UD.

Collin O'Mara, the new secretary of DNREC, concurred with Sparks. “More sustainable practices will lead to economic opportunities in Delaware,” O'Mara said.

Growing research infrastructure

Meeting participants cited several important areas of collaboration sparked by EPSCoR.

Delaware State University recently launched the Center for Integrated Biological and Environmental Research (CIBER), an EPSCoR-funded regional faculty network hub that includes the four EPSCoR partner institutions and seeks to enhance research infrastructure and competitiveness while also reaching out to K-12 educators and students.

A recent EPSCoR grant-writing workshop at the University of Delaware brought together biogeochemists, environmental chemists, environmental microbiologists, and water quality and hydrology experts to identify key research topics and new funding opportunities.

EPSCoR has also sponsored conferences on environmental nanoparticles, environmental sensing and sea level rise in the past year, all of which have reinforced the importance of establishing new connections and employing research findings to solve real-world environmental and human health problems.

While NSF's EPSCoR program is the highest-funded EPSCoR program in Delaware, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and NASA all have EPSCoR programs in the state, and Delaware EPSCoR also collaborates with the state's INBRE and COBRE programs, part of the National Institutes of Health Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program.

Kathy Covert, group leader for the integrative chemistry activities group at NSF, spoke about the effectiveness of forming multidisciplinary teams to apply for grants. “The challenge is to keep yourself open to building new relationships,” said Covert.

Developing science, technology workforce

The EPSCoR program also seeks to involve K-12 students and teachers in environmental science, in order to educate the state's future scientists.

Venugopal Kalavacharla, director of CIBER at Delaware State University, said, “A major goal of the center is to increase the enthusiasm of K-12 students about doing science.”

Jeanette Miller, the assistant director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and the director of outreach for EPSCoR, said that 27 EPSCoR summer interns from a wide range of backgrounds have signed on to work in research laboratories at the University of Delaware and Delaware State University this summer. Miller also cited EPSCoR's new collaboration with the McNair programs and the TRIO programs at Delaware Technical & Community College as examples of EPSCoR's expanding student network.

“The relationships generated by the EPSCoR network have resulted in a strong and diverse student program,” said Miller.

Nancy Targett, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of Delaware, provided an overview of the new undergraduate environmental programs at UD.

“Some of the work that we've been doing in the undergraduate arena at the University is really in sync with what EPSCoR is doing, and it is driven by the UD strategic plan,” said Targett. “The environment is not only something you study at Delaware -- it's a core value. That fits in with the EPSCoR agenda.”

Stephanie Smith, vice president for academic affairs at Delaware Technical & Community College, said that Delaware Tech has added an energy auditing course, weatherization courses, and a cluster of courses in solar technology to prepare its students for emerging jobs. “Delaware Tech has a unique role in the state,” said Smith. “When research and innovation is transformed into products and services, we provide the workforce.”

State EPSCoR Director Stephen Borleske said, “Delaware Tech is working with the Delaware EPSCoR office to identify environmental workforce opportunities in the state.”

Delaware Tech also hosts regular “Science Saturdays” and a biotechnology/environmental science summer camp as part of EPSCoR.

Addressing environmental challenges

Tom Apple, provost of the University of Delaware, described the EPSCoR program as “catalytic.” He cited the partnerships fostered by the EPSCoR grant, including those among the four academic institutions, as examples of an emerging and highly effective state problem-solving network that can be mobilized to address environmental issues in the state.

Borleske said, “We have identified three key opportunities to assist our stakeholders and private industry: climate change, specifically sea level rise adaptation; green chemistry and environmental monitoring and sensing.”

DNREC is advancing a statewide adaptation plan for sea level rise and working with researchers to find solutions to the problem. David Carter, DNREC's environmental program manager of Delaware coastal programs, said, “Climate change is a socioeconomic issue with physical science aspects.”

Borleske described the EPSCoR office's cultivation of strategic relationships with Delaware companies. Ashland, Inc., is pursuing a green chemical alliance for Delaware, in response to a challenge to businesses by Delaware Gov. Jack Markell.

Lori Palmer, global incubator business manager at Ashland Hercules Water Technologies, said the company hopes to help drive green technology and job growth in the state. “Our vision is that Delaware will be a globally recognized center of excellence in green chemistry,” said Palmer.

When researchers and practical scientists join together to advance solutions, said Dan Leathers, a professor of geography at the University of Delaware, progress happens quickly. EPSCoR sponsored an environmental monitoring and sensing meeting at UD in January that brought together the leaders of major monitoring and sensing initiatives across the state to describe their organizations' capabilities, discuss emerging needs and explore collaborative solutions.

“We can honestly say that we have the best-instrumented state in the country for environmental monitoring and sensing,” Leathers said. With 200 sensors across the state and data available in real time, Leathers describes the network in Delaware as “totally inclusive.”

Incorporating ethics and public policy

Another key element of the EPSCoR program is its integration of ethics and public policy into the discussion of environmental science and health. The proper conduct of research is also a major concern of the grant. Tom Powers, director of the Science, Ethics and Public Policy Program at the University of Delaware, and Stephen Taylor, director of the Ethics Resource Site at Delaware State University, are key leaders of the grant program.

“NSF and other federal agencies are implementing requirements in research ethics,” said Powers, who is also a co-investigator on the grant. “Thanks to EPSCoR and other funded projects, we're out in front on this requirement.”

New opportunities

The EPSCoR meeting ended on a high note, with a presentation by Karl Steiner, UD's associate provost for interdisciplinary research initiatives, detailing the many new funding opportunities that have resulted from the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan.

“EPSCoR has some real successes to celebrate,” said Borleske. “Now, we can start to focus on our long-term sustainability.”

Article by Katie Ginder-Vogel