Two U.Va. Professors Receive Fulbright Scholarships to Pursue Environmental Research

November 30, 2009

November 30, 2009 — Two University of Virginia scholars have been awarded Fulbright Fellowships, allowing them expand upon their environmental research.

Deborah Lawrence, an associate professor of environmental sciences whose work focuses on climate change, will continue her research on the effects of "slash and burn" agriculture and land-use transitions in the tropics. Lawrence will use her Fulbright Fellowship to study land-use transitions in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, an expansion of her ongoing research in Mexico, Costa Rica and Indonesia.

John Quale, an assistant professor of architecture who initiated and directs U.Va.'s "ecoMOD" project, will expand his research at the intersection of sustainable, affordable and prefabricated housing in Japan, where he will be associated with the University of Tokyo. At U.Va., he teaches and leads students in design/build studios to create highly energy-efficient prefabricated homes for affordable housing organizations such as the Piedmont Housing Alliance and Habitat for Humanity.

Lawrence will conduct her research in Thailand and will be hosted by Chiang Mai University.

"I will explore why the ecological effects of land use vary across the tropics by expanding my toolkit to include approaches from the social sciences. Climate and soils can only explain so much," she added. "Beyond that, the trajectory toward sustainability or decline depends on the human dimension – from the household to the government to the global economy."

She explores the effects of land use over lengthy periods of time – years to decades – investigating disturbances by type, intensity and the time since the last disturbance to get a big-picture view of the affects of human activities on ecosystems. She focuses on shifting cultivation of many crops, from maize, rice or pasture to cash crops such as chiles, rubber or fruits. A greater understanding of the long-term effects of land use can better inform programs for sustainable management, especially important in tropical forests.

"Tropical forests hold vast stores of the earth's biodiversity; they also play a major role in regulating the global carbon cycle and thus, global climate," Lawrence said. "Understanding how these forests are changing, the drivers of those changes, and constraints on their ability to sequester carbon in the future is critical to formulating sound policies to maintain the functioning of our Earth system."

Lawrence this year also was named a Guggenheim Fellow and a Jefferson Science Fellow by the U.S. State Department.

In addition to being a Fulbright Fellow, Quale will be the 2010 Thomas Jefferson Fellow at Cambridge University's Downing College, where he will focus his research on sustainable, affordable prefabricated housing in England and northern Europe, before traveling to Japan.

"The U.S. started an early boom in pre-fab housing after World War II, but is now lagging behind Northern Europe and Japan by about 10 years," Quale said. "But we are on the cusp of making a major shift in the production of pre-fab housing that is more affordable and sustainable."

Quale's work with ecoMOD integrates strategies that challenge designers to "address climate change, the environmental impact of buildings and the widening gap between high- and low-income Americans," he said.

His research in Japan will focus on these issues in contemporary practice in Japan. What he learns from visiting manufacturers and interviewing professionals working to address these issues will be incorporated into a series of essays he plans to write for peer-reviewed journals. He also plans to write for more publicly accessible publications with an eye toward informing the affordable and public housing communities and sharpening the prefab industry's focus on sustainable practices.

"Japan is arguably the best place in the world to study this topic," he said. "In fact, the oldest and most sophisticated tradition of prefabricated housing construction comes from Japan. As early as the 17th century, many Japanese buildings used standardized joinery and a proportional system based on the tatami mat, allowing carpenters to precut timber framing in their workshop and assemble the pieces on site.

"More recently, the Japanese housing industry began producing modular homes in room-sized units in the 1970s, and current Japanese prefab housing construction is either panelized or modular, often using digital fabrication techniques."

He also cited Japanese tradition of environmentally sustainable design with attention to the relationship inside and outside space as well as the "efficient use of land and building materials, which are deeply embedded in the Japanese design, engineering and construction industries" as exemplary practices.

"What some Western nations would identify as a sustainable design strategy is often just common-sense practice for Japan," he said. "These ideas are often more easily developed in the context of Japan's tradition of integrated, interdisciplinary design teams."

Quale first studied in Japan as an American Field Service student in high school and in a study-abroad program as an Asian studies major as an undergraduate at American University.

"It has been over 20 years since I've spent a substantial amount of time in the country, and I'm interested to see how my current design research will be influenced by the important work in Japan related to sustainable architecture, prefabricated construction and affordability in housing," Quale said.

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, sends 800 academics and professionals overseas each year for educational and cultural exchange. Quale will serve his fellowship in Japan from mid-April to late-August 2010. Lawrence served part of her fellowship in Thailand in the summer of 2009 and will return in the fall of 2010.

The Fulbright Program was created to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries." The program was established in 1946 through legislation introduced by then-Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright.

Since its inception, the Fulbright Program has awarded grants to approximately 294,000 scholars, 111,000 from the United States and 183,000 from other countries. The Fulbright Program awards approximately 7,500 new grants annually.

— By Jane Ford and Fariss Samarrai