Faculty Research Projects

To foster interdisciplinary education, students will gain experience 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.


Jay Banner’s (Dept. of 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.

Eric McDaniel’s (Dept. of 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? 

Sergio Castellanos’ (Dept. of Civil, Architectural, & Environmental Engineering) research focuses on finding sustainability solutions at the interface of energy, equity, and data science. Example research questions and projects: To understand how electricity consumption patterns could look in a future with electrified buildings as it relates to electrified heating and cooking, as well as the impact to the state’s grid. Students will support the collection and processing of data to develop a detailed analysis of electrified end-use scenarios, immerse themselves in evaluating possible financing mechanisms, and explore the social implications of deploying/adopting of novel clean technologies. Programming experience is helpful

Juliana Felkner’s (School of Architecture) research and teaching address the societal and environmental challenges that come with increasing urbanization of the world. Through modeling required reductions of operational and embodied carbon from the built environment, using life-cycle assessment, grid mix forecasting, energy modeling, and based on climate scenarios up to the year 2100, she presents decarbonization pathways for urban environments. Example research questions and projects: How can campus buildings be retrofitted to mitigate the urban heat island effect in a hot humid climate? How can historic buildings be preserved while also adapting to energy efficient strategies? How can community engagement be incorporated to address environmental impact and awareness?

Nate Miller’s (Dept. of Geological Sciences) research applies the tools of analytical geochemistry, petrography, and field geology to understand Earth Systems and their evolution. His lab specializes in elemental analysis of solids and liquids using laser ablation and solution mode ICP-MS. Example research questions and projects: How do chemical variations in natural archives relate to modern and ancient environmental conditions? Students will use novel imaging and elemental analysis techniques to evaluate how microstratigraphic records, such as preserved in stalagmites, carbonate cements, and biominerals, may proxy modern and ancient climatic or paleoceanographic conditions. Collections ranging from Snowball Earth to Pleistocene deglacial records are available for study.

Dev Niyogi’s (Depts. of 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.

Daniel Breecker’s (Dept. of Geological Sciences) research analyzes biogeochemical processes occurring at or near the land surface. He studies soils and paleosols, caves and stalagmites, and other materials, such as volcanic glass, that give us insight into ancient Earth. Example research questions and projects: How and when do calcium carbonates accumulate in soils? How does carbon cycling in soils differ/compare with carbon cycling deeper in the critical zone? How did the weathering of rocks change during warm climates of the past?

Paola Passalacqua’s (Dept. of Civil, Architectural, & Environmental Engineering) research focuses on flood inundation mapping in Southeast Texas as part of the DOE funded SETx-UIFL project. The project is focused on quantifying the compounding effects of flooding and air pollution on marginalized communities under future climate scenarios. Example research questions and projects: Which processes and variables need to be captured in regional scale hydrological and atmospheric models so that they are representative of the conditions experienced by local communities and help inform adaptation strategies? How can we understand the linkages between and within natural, built, and social systems in urbanized regions to better support natural and human resilience?

Mary Jo Kirisits’ (Dept. of Civil, Architectural, & Environmental Engineering) research focuses on drinking water treatment and quality. As part of her EPA-funded Consortium On Disinfection by-products and Opportunistic pathogens in Water Networks (CO-DOWN) project, the team will achieve a nationwide study of the prevalence of opportunistic pathogens (OPs), their free-living amoebae vectors, and (un)regulated disinfection by-products (DBPs) across a wide variety of sizes and types of drinking water distribution systems; further, the team will examine fundamental scientific hypotheses related to the occurrence of OPs and DBPs as a function of water quality parameters. Example research questions and projects: How do Legionella pneumophila concentrations vary in drinking water distribution systems of small (often rural or marginalized) utilities as compared to large (often urban) utilities? Are biofilms a useful sentinel for the occurrence of Legionella pneumophila in drinking water distribution systems?

CRESSLE Postdoctoral Fellows’ (Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences) research focuses on community-driven research projects addressing resilience challenges, with a focus on water-quality degradation that may disproportionately affect east Austin communities. Example research questions and projects: Partnering with university researchers and community organizations to investigate the sources, processes and potential solutions to water quality impacts on watersheds in underserved neighborhoods.