The University of Virginia’s Environmental Resilience Institute is changing its name to “UVA’s Environmental Institute,” signifying an expanded vision of using research and collaboration to work on environmental issues in ways that directly benefit communities.
The institute was designed to foster collaboration across Grounds to address climate and environmental resilience and sustainability challenges. As part of the official launch, officials will host Pulitzer Prize recipient Chris Mooney, a visiting fellow and lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment, to speak in the Rotunda’s Dome Room on May 1 at 4 p.m. on “How Data and Narrative Work Together to Inform the Public.”
UVA Today asked Karen McGlathery, director of the institute, about the name change and the institute’s work, which includes developing seed grants, sponsoring internships and fellowships, and leading large interdisciplinary research initiatives.
McGlathery, a professor of environmental sciences, also leads the Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research program, based at UVA’s Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center on the Eastern Shore. Her research focuses on climate, land use and species invasion in driving long-term change in coastal ecosystems.
Q. How does the institute foster collaboration among disciplines and why is this important?
A. Our founding principle is that a sustainable future is possible only through collaboration and innovation. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing society and affects all aspects of our well-being. Actionable solutions won’t come from just one discipline; it is at the intersection of disciplines and different perspectives where the solutions reside.
The institute builds on the strengths of our faculty and students and the various stakeholders we serve by assembling teams to tackle specific climate and environmental challenges. We support new ideas by creating a broad community of researchers and partners who share the goal of connecting research to action. We want our work to create a better future for people around the world facing climate change and other environmental issues.
Q. What are some of the disciplines the institute has brought together and how does that contribute to outcomes?
A. We bring together experts who approach environmental issues from a variety of perspectives. This includes environmental scientists, architects, planners, chemists and engineers, social scientists, policy experts, lawyers, economists, artists and more.
We support work about people and the environment. We want to bring together the great work UVA is doing through thoughtful faculty research across Grounds to have a positive impact for people any place in the world. We need to know the science behind climate change and how people perceive risks and make decisions about those risks.
Q. What is the vision for engaging the community in UVA’s climate change research?
A. We recently launched a new initiative called the “Climate Collaborative.” This will support and steward unique projects built around UVA research in different places in the world. They will foster collaboration with stakeholders to create the research agenda and how it can be translated into policy and practice. Climate change is a global phenomenon, but it impacts people at the local level, and so our research needs to address that connection.
Understanding how UVA’s frontier research can best serve the needs of communities impacted by climate change will create relevant and impactful work that has the power to help generations to come.
Q. What are some projects the Environmental Institute is currently supporting that excite you most?
A. I’m excited about several projects that are good examples of the vision we have for the Climate Collaborative. These all involve large interdisciplinary teams working with partners in communities to address climate change. Two are on the coast of Virginia, one on the rural Eastern Shore and one in the urban Norfolk-Hampton roads area. One is in northern Alaska.
We also have our Climate Restoration Initiative, a team pulled from five UVA schools working alongside state partners on ways the Commonwealth of Virginia can reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. This team is working on solutions that include both technology and nature-based strategies of carbon dioxide removal, as well the policy and economic aspects of implementing them in different parts of the state.
The institute also has the capacity to respond rapidly. A recent example is our support of work on earthquake resiliency as we’re learning lessons from the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
Q. What are some of the initiatives you would like to see the institute pursue in the future?
A. We’ll continue to strengthen the backbone programming, including interdisciplinary research and supporting student internships and postdoctoral fellowships. We are developing new partnerships with organizations across Grounds and in our community on topics including climate and democracy, climate and health and climate-based migration. We’re lining up events in the fall to bring people together to discuss these critical issues and figure out how UVA can have the greatest impact.
We’re also considering new ways to bring the humanities into the climate work. This involves narratives, histories, music and art. We want to capture the entire lived experience related to climate change.
Q. How does your work in coastal ecosystems fit with the institute’s mission?
A. I have seen firsthand how UVA is a global leader in understanding how climate change affects ecosystems and how nature is first line of defense protecting coastal communities. I’ve always worked in an interdisciplinary team and value the collaborations. Now working with a broader team of researchers and community leaders on the Eastern Shore, we are thinking about climate equity – how climate change disproportionally impacts people in the community and how our research can support equitable decision-making.
Q. Why do you think the work the institute is doing on the environment matters?
A. Our motto is “Climate change is real and so are the solutions.” I think that universities have an important responsibility to serve. As the new Environmental Institute, we will be doing work that is both great and good. We are fostering frontier research and using it to make people’s lives better. In the end, UVA’s Environmental Institute is about real people in real communities.