It’s a Dry Heat – AEESP Conference in Tempe, AZ by Ryan Julien

I traveled to Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, Arizona this May for the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP) 2019 Conference. The conference theme was “Environmental Engineers & Scientists see Cities in 4-D” and highlighted the need for environmental engineers to see cities in multiple dimensions such as built environment, natural environment, human health, and cyberspace. This broad perspective helped to shed some light on the interconnectedness of engineering problems and policy.

Saguaro Cacti at ASU’s Desert Botanical Gardens

I attended several interesting talks. Most of what I attended had fairly direct connections to my research into water quality and premise plumbing, but I also listened in on a few others (from decentralized water treatment to managing mold growth in carpet in the International Space Station).

This is the third conference that I’ve attended since I started my PhD last January, and it was great to meet up with several other students and professors that I’ve met at previous conferences. I’ve felt somewhat hesitant to develop these relationships, but it’s been very rewarding. It sometimes even felt like I was just meeting up with friends instead of just feeling like professional networking events.

Grad student social at the Marston Exploration Theater

I presented a poster about my current research the second morning of the conference. I got a lot of helpful feedback, and had a good time talking to colleagues, conference-friends, and other attendees about my work.  It felt a lot different (and less stressful!) talking to others about my research when I viewed the interaction more casually. That mindset helped me to ask better questions about others’ work and to see some connections that I may have missed had I been more stressed or focused on making a good impression.

The conference organizers kept us busy. Apart from the posters and presentations, I attended social events put on by the conference each night. I had the opportunity to explore ASU’s Desert Botanical Garden, participate in a trivia night and watch a 3D astronomy show in the Marston Exploration Theater, and finally hang out with lots of other students at a casino night at the conference venue. I really liked the broad scope of the activities and the interesting conversations they inspired.

I really enjoyed my trip, the conference, and the opportunity to further develop my professional network. Thanks to ESPP for the generous funding to make this travel possible!

Ryan Julien is a doctoral student in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering with a Dual Major in Environmental Science and Policy. For information on the ESPP Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants, please go to

Diversity in words and in action by Jennifer Lai

This spring, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to help organize the annual STGlobal Conference. For many, there is a very specific type of ambivalence associated with the American capital — something duly felt as my team and I prepared to host conference participants from not only the United States but also overseas.

Participants of the 2019 STGlobal Conference

Only by cultivating a safe, fun, and hospitable environment would we be able to uphold the unique reputation of the STGlobal Conference. Sponsored by members of the STGlobal Consortium, the STGlobal Conference is an interdisciplinary, science and technology studies (STS) conference that provides a space for those who want to consider, and/or actively change, the professional conduct and opportunities available to scholars in academic settings. At the conference, STGlobal participants are prompted to share ideas about how scholars can better embrace and respectfully engage with the activist roots of their research. Coupled with the more conventional aspects of the conference — the keynotes, the panels, the posters, the networking — is an ongoing exchange of support and shared intrigue among participants involving the moral, ethical, and intellectual impetuses and implications of their current work.

Chinatown in Washington, D.C.

This supportive environment is what drew me to this conference, this venue, this group of people — and ultimately, was what drove me to volunteer for this year’s conference as the Logistics Chair. As it turns out, logistics involves almost all of the major tasks that ensure the conference actually happens. I found that some tasks were more conducive to group work than others: Negotiating and confirming details about the venue, food and drink, and conference supplies could certainly be tackled in stages across multiple volunteers. However, other tasks, like setting up the panels themselves, sometimes needed a few hours of intense, panic-induced concentration. At one point, I was pushing a wheeled cart of stacked poster boards between The George Washington University campus and the National Academies of Sciences building, sweating through my overalls and disingenuously apologizing to all the other sharply-dressed pedestrians sharing the sidewalk on a Friday afternoon. In short, conference organizing is far from a glamorous job — definitely more like putting on a play than writing a paper — but it is also fulfilling in unexpected ways.

My own personal takeaway from this conference involved recognizing the need to improve our social practices around hosting international participants. Even with the best of inclusive intentions, during one of our social events, I glanced around the table of participants and noticed that literally all of the international students were clustered in the corner nearest me. As one of the few non-white bodies at the conference — I’m Chinese-American — I felt, predictably, like an unofficial envoy to participants who had traveled from India, Hong Kong, and South Korea in order to spend fewer than 72 hours with their STS colleagues in the United States. At nearly every gathering of academics, diversity is touted as both a value and an action — except I have seen plenty of the former, and not enough of the latter. Indeed, ‘diversity’ has become a makeshift term that obscures the more difficult task of emotionally investing in the experiences of international and non-white American students placed in primarily white spaces. These dynamics need to be addressed in both formal and informal settings — and with our nearly boundless knowledge of these issues, it is academics who need to actively engage with informed social practices. As Maya Angelou said, once you know better, you need to do better.

Brunch at Old Ebbitt Grill

I end with this because I view the Environmental Science and Public Policy (ESPP) program at

Michigan State University not only as an interdisciplinary space, but as a venue that likewise generates positive energy, enough to bolster meaningful intercultural exchange across domestic and international contexts. ESPP graduate students, faculty members, and other affiliates should continue to demonstrate to their colleagues in venues near and far how to disrupt our uncritical tendencies to self-segregate among international, cultural, racial, and other socially-defined lines in both formal and informal spaces. I guarantee that those whom you extend your courtesy to remember and appreciate your efforts. For example, a few days after this year’s STGlobal Conference, I received a note from my colleague in South Korea, thanking me for, in her words, a wonderful conference. Not everything about D.C. has to be ambivalent!

The Watergate Hotel and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts







Jennifer Lai is a doctoral student in Sociology. For information on the ESPP Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants, please go to


Society of Risk Analysis and the best po’ boy in NOLA by Ryan Julien

This December I had the opportunity to present my research at the Society of Risk Analysis (SRA) Annual meeting, held this year in New Orleans, LA. SRA is an international society that serves as an interdisciplinary forum to discuss risk analysis and communication. Speakers came from public, private, and academic backgrounds and presented work on a wide range of topics; from climate change to infrastructure challenges to food availability for underrepresented groups. Each talk discussed different risks from varying perspectives. I found the diversity of the presentations interesting and engaging.

Ryan Julien presented his work on health risks of conventional and low-flow showers and toilets at the 2018 Society of Risk Analysis annual meeting.

My work as a PhD student investigates the impacts of water conservation and water age on water quality within homes. I had the opportunity to present both a poster and an oral presentation at the conference. My talk described a preliminary model I created that estimates water age in a home based on data collected from several flowmeters in the home. My poster presentation summarized a case study comparing health risks of conventional and low‑flow showers and toilets. This case study followed a Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA) framework, which I learned at the QMRA Interdisciplinary Instructional Institute last summer.

It was exciting to share work I’ve become so passionate about. Everyone at the conference seemed genuinely interested in each other’s work. I received some interesting questions and helpful feedback that I hope will help guide the next steps of my research.

After the conference, I spent two days exploring New Orleans. I saw a few parades, a serene sculpture garden, an amazing light show, and ate the best po’ boy in NOLA (at least according to my Lyft driver). I was surprised to see that the city is still coping with rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

This trip was a great experience for me, both personally and professionally. Presenting my work to peers is intimidating, but I’m feeling much more confident in myself and my work after all the helpful feedback and encouragement I received at SRA.

Thanks to the ESPP conference travel program for helping to make this trip a reality!

Ryan Julien is a doctoral student in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering with a Dual Major in Environmental Science and Policy. For information on the ESPP Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants, please go to


Sustainability and Development Conference by Min Gon Chung

With the ESPP travel grant, I attended the first Sustainability and Development Conference to be held at the University of Michigan from November 9-11, 2018. This international conference brought together a diverse and interdisciplinary constituency to engage with the best approaches to end poverty, protect the planet, and secure human well-being. The conference topics ranged from humans (indigenous people, education and equity) to nature (biodiversity and conservation), particularly with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Min Gon Chung

I presented my recent research regarding “Global impacts of meat trade on non-communicable diseases” in the session of Reshaping Economic Geography. Using comprehensive datasets of 14 red meat and six processed meat items across 135 countries from 1995 to 2015, this study focused on how meat trade differently affects the risks of three diet-related NCDs (colon and rectum cancer, diabetes mellitus, and ischemic heart disease) across countries. I also examined which socioeconomic and environmental factors contribute to meat trade using social network analysis approach. Developing countries that are the former communist and socialist states in Europe have rapidly increased age-standardized NCD death rates from meat imported.

One of the impressive benefits of participating in this conference is that participants had the opportunity to submit their presented paper for review consideration for a special issue in the World Development journal. Additionally, in a special roundtable, five interdisciplinary journal editors spoke about the publishing process and offered insights and guidance for young researchers to successfully publish manuscripts: Arun Agrawal (World Development), Marc Bellemare (Food Policy), Lance Gunderson (Ecology and Society), Joan Nassauer (Landscape and Urban Planning), and Rich Howarth (Ecological Economics).

Panelists at the Sustainability and Development Conference in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Sustainability and Development Conference helped me to better understand the linkages between ecosystem services, biodiversity, and human well-being in the context of SDGs across different spatial and temporal scales. A summary of this conference includes that SDG targets should be urgently assessed at multi-level scales from local to global levels and that trade-offs and synergies between SDGs should be quantified as soon as possible. Participating in the conference was an excellent opportunity to develop my research on global sustainability issues further. This conference also provided great opportunities to share my research, receive feedback from other participants, network and exchange ideas, and pursue collaborative efforts in interdisciplinary studies.

Again, I would like to appreciate the ESPP for providing financial support to attend the Sustainability and Development Conference and share my research with the interdisciplinary community.

Min Gon Chung is a doctoral student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife with a Dual Major in Environmental Science and Policy. For information on the ESPP Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants, please go to

The 100th AGU annual conference – new friends, new horizons and new journey by Qiu Han (Civil and Environmental Engineering)

Thanks to the generous travel grant given by the Environmental Science and Policy Program (ESPP) at MSU, I could attend the 100th American Geophysical Union Annual Conference held in Washington D.C., Dec. 10- Dec. 15. This is the biggest national conference of geophysical disciplines including hydrology, climatology, geology, earth science, geophysics, environmental science, and ocean science etc. Over 20,000 people including researchers, scholars and students participated in this research feast and there were overall five days of seminars, poster sessions, workshops and exhibitions. It was wonderful to participate in such a huge event and to know different researchers and to learn about their studies.

Qiu Han is a doctoral student in Civil and Environmental Engineering.

I presented my poster in the first day of the conference. I am currently focusing on developing process-based modeling tools that could simulate and help understanding the coupled thermal and nutrients dynamic system in watershed scale. The tool will be able to simulate nitrogen reaction and transport efficiently in different hydrologic domains. Multi-disciplinary research experiences incorporating hydrological, biogeophysical, and biogeochemical processes fostered my understanding of hydrology from various aspects. My research is related to several important worldwide water issues, such as Algae Blooms, eutrophication and nutrient contamination problems. The goal of this research is to develop a tool that could be effectively and efficiently utilized in predicting the riverine export of nitrogen (and phosphorus) and informing sustainable water resources, agricultural management and decision making. Several visitors from different disciplines came to my poster and provided me with precious comments. It’s always a good chance to learn from and to share ideas with researchers from different area. The simulation of temperature, nutrient reaction and transport do need a wide range of knowledge including numerical modeling, hydrology, biogeochemistry etc. Communication with different researchers from multi-disciplinary areas could foster innovative ideas and help me improve my model from various aspects. It’s also a very good pleasure to broaden my professional network and know new friends in different fields. I did make new friends, we had lunch together and shared our study and research experiences and talked about customs in different countries in the world.

For the rest days of the seminar, I could have the chance to broaden my horizon with all kinds of innovative research ideas. Not limited to hydrologic model, I am brought to a kaleidoscopic world of water-food-energy researches, including crop modeling, land surface models, remote sensing technologies and data assimilation technologies. I started to concern about some new problems that are outside of my current research, for example, the giant farming systems popular here in the United States. They are usually associated with large-scale irrigation with groundwater withdraws. The extensive-scale irrigation also projects changes in land–atmosphere interaction, air temperature, and precipitation. While I am sailing in the sea of researches, I feel it is still a long journey for me to go, to unveil any myths of nature and to reach a level that could satisfy my desire for knowledge. Meanwhile, I recognize in myself the strong responsibility to extend my knowledge and to broad my ideas to explore the unknows of hydrology.

This experience is unforgettable, not simply because it is the 100th annual conference of AGU, but it broadened my view of researches and refreshed my minds to desire for new knowledge. I would like to thank ESPP again for the travel grant, it offered me the opportunity to attend this conference. This is the beginning of a new journey for a fifth year Ph.D. student and the journey for pursing knowledge never ends.

Qiu Han is a doctoral student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering working on nutrient transport modeling, multi-objective optimization and climate change. For more information on the ESPP Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants, please go to


Preparing students and teachers to see the bigger environmental picture

Stephen Vrla

Stephen Vrla is a dual PhD candidate in both sociology and Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education. This summer, he is conducting research on creating a curriculum to help current and future teachers prepare students and fellow teachers alike to make deliberative democratic decisions regarding climate, food, energy, and water using systems thinking. Systems thinking is an idea that talks about using the bigger picture as well as the details to make a decision. Vrla believes this research is absolutely vital to the CFEW nexus because he wants to motivate the next generation to think about climate change as well as instill ideas about teamwork and democracy.

Stephen Vrla is a doctoral student in Department of Sociology and ESPP

“Although democratic deliberation is common in K-12 education, it is mostly limited to the field of social studies; similarly, systems thinking is a popular concept in environmental education, but not other subject areas. By developing an approach to K-12 environmental education that applies these two complementary, but isolated methods to wicked CFEW decision making, my research will make an original, meaningful contribution to CFEW knowledge,” Vrla said.


Vrla defines wicked as a deep disagreement on values and a high level of scientific uncertainty and believes that discursive democracy is a possible solution to these wicked problems because it incorporates the views of physically absent stakeholders, including non-humans into decisions.


Vrla plans on spending his summer at Fenner Nature Center in Lansing to conduct his research where he is also an environmental educator. He also plans on using practitioner action research to develop his curriculum during the summer.

Outside of my academic comfort zone by Christina Azodi (Plant Biology and ESPP)

This winter I escaped the cold Michigan winter to attended and presented a poster at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. As a fourth year Ph.D. student, this was not my first conference rodeo, but the AAAS Annual Meeting, is not your average conference.

Christina Azodi is a doctoral student with dual majors in Plant Biology and Environmental Science and Policy at Michigan State University.

The AAAS is the largest multidisciplinary scientific society in the world. With the meeting’s theme of ‘Advancing Science: Discovery to Application’ as a rough guideline, the seminar topics ranged from the microbiome to sustainable cities to astrophysics. Taking advantage of the breadth of expertise at the conference, I spent my days stepping out of my academic comfort zone. I learned about efforts to use data from personal fitness trackers to assess the recovery of surgical patients, what statisticians believe went wrong in the 2016 election predictions, the impact of the phytobiome on crop production, and progress on using genomic data for precision medicine. The conference also boasted an impressive list of of plenary lecturers, including NASA’s Ellen Ochoa, Cori Bargmann from The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, renowned science communicator Katharine Hayhoe, and last (but definitely not least), Vice President Joe Biden.

While fascinating, at times I found the diversity and size of the conference overwhelming. However, I soon began noticing consistent themes cropping up in many presentations. First, was a call to develop cooperative and interdisciplinary approaches to solve big problems. In the era of big data, few labs, if any, have the resources to generate, analyze, and apply their findings without the help of other research groups. Because of the gravity of issues facing our society today, many scientists who are leaders in their respective fields were calling for collaboration across fields, institutes, and borders. There was also discussion of what cultural shifts need to take place in the academic community so that contributions to large integrative projects are given proper acknowledgement. For example, with current hiring and promotion decision often resting on the number of first/last author publications and primary PI grants, early career scientists are often deterred from collaborative work. Similarly, with competition to publish first and to get grants funded so fierce, sharing data and/or resources is often avoided.

This word cloud shows all the talk titles at AAAS this year. Created by Christina Azodi

Another noteworthy theme to emerge from the conference was one that MSU’s Environmental Science and Policy Program emphasizes in its curriculum, the importance of science communication. Whether it was communicating across science disciplines, to policy makers, or to a non-scientific public, scientists at the AAAS are clearly concerned about the difficulties surrounding science communication.

Attending the AAAS conference is like seeing a performance version of Science Magazine’s top breakthroughs of the year. To see the advances and challenges facing researching working at the edges of their fields is both captivating and exciting. Because working on a Ph.D. typically means digging deep into a very specific problem, it is easy to forget the big picture and even why you wanted a Ph.D. in the first place. At the AAAS conference, I was reminded why 15 year old me wanted to become a scientist. Because nature is amazing and by learning more about it we can hopefully make someone’s life a little bit better.

Thanks to ESPP for generously funding my trip to the AAAS meeting.

Christina Azodi is an ESPP and Plant Biology doctoral student.  Her trip to Austin was funded in part by ESPP’s Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants. For more information on the grants and how to apply, go to


ESPP Research Fellow Awa Sanou is investigating how Nigeria’s poultry farmers are adapting to climate variability

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in  a series of articles highlighting the summer research activities of Michigan State University doctoral students, funded in part by ESPP’s Summer Research Fellowship program. To learn more about the program, go to

Awa Sanou is a PhD candidate in the Department of Community Sustainability. This summer, she is conducting research regarding Nigerian farmers’ perception of climate variability and how it affects both their productivity and adaptability decisions in poultry farming. In recent years, this sector has grown considerably due to rising incomes and urbanization but there are still many challenges such as limited access to electricity and water.

Awa Sansou, doctoral student in the Department of Community Sustainability, is research climate variability affects on poultry farming.

According to Sanou, this research is vital because if water and electricity are scarce, then food can become scarce as well.

“Nigeria’s poultry sector is critical in ensuring food security because it is a source of inexpensive protein for the growing middle class in urban areas,” Sanou said.

Sanou’s advisor, Dr. John Kerr, also believes that this topic is very well-suited for Sanou and for this year’s theme for the ESPP Summer Research Fellowship. “Poultry production is an important topic in Nigeria, a burgeoning country of over 160 million people whose population is expected to soar in the coming years. Meeting the demands for animal protein is critically important, and poultry is attractive because of the high protein to feed ratio for production of both eggs and meat,” Kerr said.

Sanou plans on taking an interdisciplinary approach in regard to her research. She plans on using open-ended qualitative questions to understand from the farmer’s perspective how climate change has affected their operations and how they have learned to adapt. She also conducted a choice experiment related to the different attributes of poultry feed and plans on analyzing the data using econometrics.

Brushes with hydrological fame in Toronto: an ESPP travel blog by Zachary Curtis (Civil and Environmental Engineering and ESPP)

I recently traveled to Toronto, Canada to present Michigan groundwater research at the 61st annual Conference on Great Lakes Research, made possible because of generous funding from the Environmental Science and Policy Program at MSU. For those of us environmental researchers that call the Great Lakes our temporary (or permanent) home, this is a bucket-list item. The conference covers a wide variety of topics – from aquatic ecology, to physical limnology, to watershed management and policy dimensions – over four days of seminars, poster sessions and informal get-togethers. It was remarkable to learn so many new things about a system that I live in and have studied for the past few years.

Zach Curtis, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy doctoral student, is working to understand water sustainability in the Great Lakes.

The conference offered the usual opportunities for networking and broadening perspectives, but it also led to a chance encounter that I will always remember. Waiting outside the hotel, I sparked up conversation with an older gentleman that was also waiting to shuttle to the conference. After a few minutes, I realized I was talking to a plenary speaker and a well-known research hydrologist! His 2015 paper on water security and the science agenda is one of my favorites – in fact, I routinely share a copy with students as a teaching instructor in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Already nervous from the fact that the shuttle was running late and the Toronto traffic was moving slow, (I was cutting it a little close for my oral presentation…), I felt even more nerves as I realized the unique opportunity to talk with an accomplished leader of my field was unexpectedly afforded to me.  Yet, the tardiness of the shuttle and the slow commute was a blessing – he was extremely engaged and interested in my research, and we had plenty of time to exchange stories and perspectives (and I did end up making it to my talk with plenty time to spare…).  To be at opposite ends of our research careers – me, just getting started, and him, planning his final projects – made for an interesting and frank discussion.

Minutes before my oral presentation, I noticed that he was sitting in the second row. Afterwards, I spent some time answering questions and receiving excellent feedback from him. I walked away from that brief encounter feeling motivated to push on and do my best work, and with some more reflection, it helped me to realize how important it is for young researchers to have a variety of mentors – because there are always set-backs and unexpected changes, and you never know who can help give you some perspective.

This conference deepened my love for the Great Lakes region and helped me better appreciate those that study it.  But perhaps most importantly, this conference also helped develop my sense of mentorship and opportunity that I will apply as I grow into a seasoned researcher.

Zachary Curtis is an Environmental Engineering doctoral student.  His trip to Toronto  was funded in part by ESPP’s Interdisciplinary Conference Travel Grants. For more information on the grants and how to apply, go to

What will it take to make Michigan accept aquaculture? An ESPP student is fishing for answers.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in  a series of articles highlighting the summer research activities of Michigan State University doctoral students, funded in part by ESPP’s Summer Research Fellowship program. To learn more about the program, go to

Michigan has the capacity to produce between $1 billion and $5 billion each year for commercial seafood. However, Michigan actually imports roughly 90% of their seafood from countries with substandard environmental, labor, and health laws due to the perceptions of the threats held by aquaculture (or fish-farming) to the Great Lakes after this long recovery.

Since the state of Michigan has made a painstakingly slow recovery after centuries of over-exploitation and industrial dumping, many stakeholders are extremely reluctant to consider aquaculture as a form of economic prosperity.

However, Betsy Riley, ESPP Summer Research Fellow, University Distinguished Fellow and fourth year doctoral student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and ESPP, believes it is time for a change.

This summer, she is conducting research in regard to a possible sustainable seafood industry here in Michigan. Building off data from her capstone project, she wants to figure out the acceptable level of risk with this industry.

Betsy Riley (Fisheries and Wildlife, ESPP) is working on sustainable seafood in Michigan.

Since she has spent the last nine months interviewing stakeholders, she views them as a vital part of her summer research.

“This research rethinks my research participants as research partners who can help decide which research questions are most important to them,” Riley said.

According to Riley, the fight over aquaculture has been long and heated with people on both sides of the aisle thinking the risks are too great and the rewards are too small and most likely will not happen for at least another decade. “Lawsuits have been filed, legislation is introduced, expert panels have come and gone, and millions of dollars have been offered and turned down.”

But she has already made great strides in advancing knowledge of sustainable aquaculture. Riley has contributed to a collaborate project with Michigan’s Quality of Life Agencies to develop a commercial aquaculture siting suitability mapping resources and guidebook.

“Because of Betsy’s focus on scholarship in graduate research and scholarly outreach activities, including a current Sea Grant Extension Graduate Fellow, I believe Betsy will continue to develop into an exemplary leader in conservation of our fisheries, aquaculture and water quality linking scholarship and scholarly outreach activities that will positively impact the fisheries resources in the Great Lakes region,” wrote Heather Triezenberg, Extension Specialist and Program Coordinator for the Michigan Sea Grant.

“I believe results from Betsy’s research will be foundational to understanding stakeholder perceptions of sustainably raised aquaculture products in this region, and range of acceptance. This information will inform outreach and engagement efforts for years to come.”