Faculty Research Projects

To foster interdisciplinary education, each student will have a faculty mentor from their primary discipline, and a secondary mentor from another discipline. This will be coordinated to provide students with both STEM and social science research perspectives. Our team has a range of experience mentoring undergraduates as outlined for each below, including by coauthoring peer-reviewed articles, mentoring honors and capstone theses, initiating outreach programs and bringing students into their laboratories and field sites as research assistants. Although our mentor team members come from a range of disciplines, most of our team have collaborations with one or more team members, including through a university-wide research initiative, Planet Texas 2050. The summer research program focuses on challenges that are unique to rapidly urbanizing climate-sensitive terrains. Urban systems are complex and significant in terms of their impact on the environment, the economy, and societal functioning. In spite of the unprecedented rapid rate of urbanization in the 21st century, we do not have a sufficient understanding of the natural, social, and engineered processes and feedbacks within urban systems that are required to better plan for their sustainable growth. To address this knowledge deficit, we must design research that integrates perspectives across the disciplines traditionally represented by the natural, social, and engineered subsystems of urban centers. We organize our research themes (described below) on the key connections between the integrated subsystems. Whereas an individual student research project will emphasize one subsystem, students will gain an appreciation of all three subsystems as guided by program elements such as the research roundtables, co-mentoring, and peer shadowing.

Research Theme A: Sustainable Urban Systems – Engineered-Natural Subsystems. To understand the impacts of rapid growth of urban populations and the associated built environment, we require models of urban expansion that integrate changing urban form, climate, and ecosystems, and the resulting demands for water and other resources.

Research Theme B: Sustainable Urban Systems – Social-Engineered Subsystems. By understanding individual and organizational preferences, limitations, and behaviors—along with pressures placed on them by environmental factors—we can better understand how individuals and organizations within social-engineered systems alleviate or exacerbate key interactions between the subsystems.

Research Theme C: Past Perspectives on Sustainability. Studies of past societies, ecosystems and climate and hydrologic systems offer unique perspectives on present and future change that can inform planning for sustainable urban systems.

Each student will be part of a research project led by one of the faculty mentors listed below and will participate in field trips and seminars. The full student cohort will also work with each other to integrate their research plans and analysis to develop an interdisciplinary understanding of sustainable urban systems. Please select your top three choices for your research experience.

Faculty

Jay Banner’s (Dept. Geological Sciences) research applies principles of geochemistry to understanding: 1) past climate change based on studies of cave mineral deposits (speleothems) and tree rings, and 2) impacts of urbanization on water resources over decadal to century time scales. Example research questions and projects: How do reconstructions of the processes that control the evolution of water quality in Austin-area watersheds over the past century, inform planning of new urban development? (Beal et al., 2020). How did the climate of central Texas change in response to abrupt global change events during the transition out of the last ice age? Students will use novel applications of isotope tracers to reconstruct climate and water quality histories.

Patrick Bixler’s (School of Public Affairs) research investigates socio-political and governance dimensions of sustainable systems. His group focuses on both urban and regional processes and social dynamics and governance mechanisms that drive social-ecological change. Example research questions and projects: How does the relationship between public and community-led governance of urban green spaces in Austin watersheds change outcomes for biodiversity, water quality, and flood mitigation? How do these outcomes vary with social vulnerability of residents? Students will collect socio-demographic characteristics of vulnerability and apply network science to better understand how underlying collaborative dynamics translate to ecological outcomes.

Dan Breecker’s (Dept. Geological Sciences) research spans the study of soil and caves. Improved understanding of the biogeochemistry of these systems through monitoring of modern processes is used to inform interpretations of the geochemical composition of paleosols and speleothems. Example research questions and projects: How does the timing and delivery of rainfall influence the formation of calcium carbonates in soils? How can such soil carbonates be used to reconstruct past rainfall patterns and paleoenvironments? Student research projects may span timescales from climate change occurring over millions of years to the effect of individual rainfall events on the dissolution of soil carbonates.

Kasey Faust’s (Dept. Civil, Architectural, & Environmental Engineering) research on sociotechnical systems—primarily water sector infrastructure—aims to improve service to communities. Her work spans the project phase during construction through the operations phase, exploring human-infrastructure interactions and infrastructure interdependencies. Example research questions and projects: What are adaption strategies of water infrastructure, regarding aging infrastructure failure and climate change, to ensure the continual provision of service in low-income or rural communities? How have water use profiles changed and how have affordability and equity been considered during the pandemic in the provision of services? Faust’s methods bring equity into water infrastructure decision-making and modeling of infrastructure systems and public perceptions.

Juliana Felkner’s (School of Architecture) research aims to reveal current and future impacts of climate change and population growth on our infrastructure, people, and the environment. Through simulations of growth scenarios, building designs, retrofit strategies, urban morphologies, and atmospheric warming, student project results will inform decision makers on how to plan for sustainable urban growth. Example research questions and projects: How will building and planning codes affect Austin’s carbon footprint and what local strategies can help mitigate climate change impacts on vulnerable communities? Students will explore technical and community-level solutions that make renewable energy adoption and retrofits more feasible for Texas residents.

Shalene Jha’s (Dept. Integrative Biology) research investigates species interactions and ecosystem function across urban, agricultural, and natural ecosystems, specializing in two key ecosystem service providers, plants and insects. She uses biodiversity surveys, ecosystem service experiments, and genetic/genomic tools to quantify tradeoffs and synergies between key ecosystem service indices, such as food production, climate buffering, and pest-control. Example research questions and projects: Can we predict the quantity of pollination and pest-control services and resulting food security gained by urban gardeners? How do we quantify and incentivize cultivation practices that optimize such services for gardeners and residents? Students will analyze patterns of biodiversity (e.g., insect, bird) and ecosystem service provision (e.g., climate buffering, pollination) in urban green spaces, including value to human visitors (e.g., sense of place and well-being, recreation). Interdisciplinary connection: Jha, Breecker and Banner can co-mentor students studying how climate and soil composition underlie plant phenology in urbanized watersheds, and subsequent impacts on critical ecosystem service providers, such as pollinators. 

Melissa Kemp’s (Dept. Integrative Biology) studies how biodiversity is altered by global change phenomena, such as human-mediated habitat loss and climate change. Research in the Kemp lab integrates paleontological datasets with archaeological, historical, and modern records to  1) identify patterns and causes of extinction and resiliency in vertebrates on geologic timescales, and 2) distinguish between impacts of anthropogenic vs. abiotic forces on biodiversity. 

Ashley Matheny’s (Dept. Geological Sciences) research explores the role of hydraulic strategies in regulating exchange of water between the subsurface and the atmosphere and how this influences the water, carbon, and energy cycles. Her projects use a combination of field and modeling techniques. Example research questions and projects: How do different tree species acquire, transport, store, and release water in exchange for carbon during photosynthesis? Are some tree species more adept than others at rooting in shallow aquifers during drought on the Edwards Plateau in central Texas? Her work focuses on the ways that different vegetation stressors (e.g. drought, disturbance, salinity) can alter land-atmosphere dynamics.

Eric McDaniel’s (Dept. Government) research investigates issues related to racial and ethnic politics, religion and politics, and health policy. His group studies the role of religious institutions in shaping political engagement and how descriptive representation influences health. Example research questions and projects: How does descriptive representation influence equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits? How can indigenous institutions such as churches influence health behaviors and environmental awareness in underserved communities? 

Jennifer Miller’s (Dept. Geography and the Environment) research applies geographic information science (GIScience) concepts to investigate spatial patterns of plants and animals. Her students develop models to predict species distributions based on climate, topography, geology, and other environmental and anthropogenic factors. Example research questions and projects: How important is species ‘movement’ or dispersal ability in predicting a species’ distribution with respect to changing environmental conditions? Students will use GIScience and species distribution modeling to evaluate the importance of dispersal in mediating species distributions, in contrast to other environmental factors.

Dev Niyogi’s (Depts. Geological Sciences and Civil, Architectural, & Environmental Engineering) research investigates extreme weather and climate, role of cities and landscape changes on these extremes, and the translation of results into decision-support tools for resilient cities. Example research questions and projects: How has land use/landcover changed across the strong urban-rural gradient in central Texas in recent decades, and how does this affect regional hydroclimate (Liu & Niyogi, 2019)? What strategies are available for communities to use against heat stress, air quality deterioration, and increased flooding? To address such questions, students will learn methods using satellite data and models for testing ‘urban heat island’, and ‘downscaling’ approaches to develop climate projections.

Adam Rabinowitz’s (Dept. of Classics) researches the archaeology of culture-contact at the edges of the Greco-Roman world, with particular attention to daily life, foodways, and environmental and biological evidence. Sample research question: How did climate change in the Roman period affect land-use and human and animal mobility in urban centers along the lower Danube? To answer such questions, students in Rabinowitz’s group will use archaeozoological, bioarchaeological, and isotopic analysis together with archaeological and historical evidence to examine the socio-cultural, ecological, and economic components of human-environment interactions and responses to climate stress along the Black Sea coast and the Danube frontier.