Sparks details DENIN goals to retired UD faculty members
Donald L. Sparks, director of the Delaware Environmental Institute, addressed the University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty during a meeting last month.


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11:13 a.m., Jan. 11, 2011----Donald L. Sparks, director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), highlighted the institute's goals and current research initiatives during a meeting of the University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty held last month at Clayton Hall.

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Sparks, who is also the S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil and Environmental Chemistry, said that DENIN's multi-disciplinary approach includes partnerships with government, nonprofits, industry and the business community.

“Our main goal is to enhance interactions between faculty in science, engineering and policy, and we are interested in facilitating the development of interdisciplinary academic programs,” Sparks said. “We also have been working very diligently to forge partnerships among government agencies and a number of nonprofits.”

In terms of research, Sparks noted that DENIN, in collaboration with UD's seven colleges, will emphasize two specific core areas to address significant issues of state, national and international concern: processes at the air, land and water interfaces and environmental forecasting and remediation.

“These are areas in which UD already has significant, well-known research expertise and programs under way, which we hope to build upon and bring to international prominence,” Sparks said.

Working groups are being formed to bring together faculty from across campus, according to Sparks. These working groups will help guide the scientific direction of the institute and, in many instances, form teams to compete for large federal grants.

The groups may change as faculty discover new ways of working together or the priorities of granting agencies change, Sparks said.

The institute's staff helps facilitate these working groups and can assist with coordinating and administering large grants.

In the area of air, land and water interfaces, groups are currently focusing on water quality and sustainability, air quality, and nutrient and metal cycling. In the area of forecasting and remediation, groups are collaborating on climate change, environmental remediation, and monitoring and modeling.

“This involves developing state-of-the-art sensors that will help us predict catastrophic environmental events like fish kills or algal blooms,” Sparks said. “We are also involved in trying to develop cost-effective remediation strategies to help clean up and mitigate polluted areas.”

Sparks said that all of these efforts stand to benefit the state of Delaware.

“We are a coastal state with a very fragile ecosystem, so we are very interested in pursuing research that would look at the transport and cycling of contaminants including nutrients, metals and organic chemicals,” Sparks said. “There are also significant issues related to carbon and climate change, sea-level rise and the role of microorganisms in various environmental processes.

“One area of concern in Delaware and many coastal areas is the marshlands that are dying back. With climate change and sea level rising, the marshes are very important because they help mitigate flooding and filter out contaminants.”

Sparks said that around the world and in Delaware, researchers are concerned with an environmental “critical zone,” a layer surrounding the planet that reaches from the outer limits of vegetation down to and including the zone of groundwater.

“The critical zone is basically the area in which we live and which sustains all life on Earth,” Sparks said. “It really is an elegant term because it encompasses all the areas that play critical roles in determining environmental quality. Processes at these critical zone interfaces have major implications for human health, air, soil and water quality and the impact of the environment on economic viability and development.”

Sparks noted the importance of social science and policy in making people aware of the need to address these environmental challenges.

“If you think about the major environmental challenges, we can do the best science and engineering in the world, but if we can't change people's behavior, we are probably not going to solve the problem,” Sparks said. “We need to bring in faculty from the social sciences and the humanities. This is something that we are very interested in doing.“

Sparks also told the group about a key structural component that will support DENIN's multidisciplinary approach to addressing environmental issues: the construction of the University's new $140 million Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory, which will be located at the intersection of Academy Street and Lovett Avenue in Newark.

“This will be a major benefit to our programs in environment and energy. It will be home to DENIN, the UD Energy Institute and the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy,” Sparks said. “This building, coupled with hiring a number of new faculty and the development of new programs, will propel UD to even greater heights of renown and excellence in the environmental area.”

Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Kathy Atkinson