Atkinson Center postdoc fellows address global needs

Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future is welcoming five new postdoctoral fellows to campus in an effort to translate Cornell research into sustainable solutions.

Since 2014, the Atkinson Center has offered postdoctoral fellowships in sustainability that help early-career scientists discover and implement solutions to world needs, such as reliable energy, a resilient environment and responsible economic development.

In the two-year program, postdoc fellows link their research at Cornell with external, nonacademic partners to apply sustainable solutions on the ground, under the guidance of two advisers – a lead faculty member from Cornell and one from a partner organization.

“Global challenges related to food, water, biodiversity and energy are often connected. These complex threats demand an approach that transcends traditional disciplines,” says David Lodge, the Atkinson’s Center Francis J. Di Salvo Director. “Linking Cornell postdocs to partners outside of academia helps translate research into real-world results.”

The fellows will work with the Wildlife Conservation Society, The Land Institute, Global Environmental Institute, Conservation International and World Wildlife Fund. Their projects will influence policy and involve stakeholder collaboration as they address critical challenges facing the planet and humanity.

The 2018-19 fellows are:

Rafael Almeida, computational sustainability

In many of the largest and most biodiverse rivers of the world, hydropower is expanding and there is an urgent need to reliably estimate the social and environmental consequences of proposed dams. Building on an existing collaboration between Cornell researchers and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Almeida and his team will model greenhouse gas emissions from proposed Amazonian dams to identify projects that should be ruled out and propose combinations of dams that produce fewer emissions. Collaborating with Cornell’s Alexander Flecker, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Padu Franco of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Almeida will also add other relevant impacts to a model being developed at Cornell and extend the study to the lowlands of the Brazilian Amazon – a critical step for understanding the cumulative impacts of dams in the Amazon basin.

Ben Augustine, computational sustainability

Thanks to new, noninvasive methods for monitoring wildlife species, scientists can gather important data about declining animal populations from hair or scat, using remote cameras and bioacoustic monitoring. Still, many species of conservation concern are managed without the necessary information on population status or trends. Together with Cornell’s Angela Fuller, associate professor of natural resources, and Isaac Goldstein of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Augustine will develop better methods for estimating animal populations using noninvasive sampling methods. One area of focus will be improved bioacoustic monitoring of species that vocalize, including elephants, dolphins, many primates and birds.

Cynthia Bartel, sustainable agriculture and food systems

Annual grain crops occupy approximately 75 percent of U.S. cropland and account for more than 70 percent of people’s food calories. Perennial grain crops are widely recognized for their ability to mitigate losses in wildlife habitat and biodiversity, offset reliance on fossil fuels, and curb soil and water degradation caused by intensive production practices. However, there is a need for more quantitative information to optimize their production and understand how perennial grains can contribute to environmental goals. Working with Cornell’s Matthew Ryan, assistant professor of soil and crop sciences, Lee DeHaan of The Land Institute, and an established network of grain crop farmers, Bartel will conduct on-farm research and test strategies for transitioning from annual to perennial grains.

Tyler Harlan, energy transitions

In the last decade, China has built renewable energy installations at a rate unmatched in the world. In 2013 it announced a proposal to invest in renewable energy in other countries through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an overarching strategy for regional integration and infrastructure investment across Asia. Still, China’s economy is largely comprised of carbon-intensive and highly polluting industries, and Chinese companies are rapidly building coal-fired power plants and mining operations overseas. Collaborating with Cornell’s John Zinda, assistant professor of development sociology, and Peng Ren of Global Environmental Institute, Harlan’s team will investigate the technologies, practices and models of green development that are implemented through BRI renewable energy projects, and their implications for resource-dependent populations.

Aaron Koning, sustainable agriculture and food systems

In Southeast Asia, more than 60 million people depend on river fisheries for their daily protein and micronutrient supply. Through a collaboration with Cornell’s Peter McIntyre, a faculty fellow in fisheries and aquatic sciences arriving in July, Robin Abell of Conservation International, and Michele Thieme of World Wildlife Fund, Koning will explore how applying marine reserves principles to inland waters can conserve biodiversity and ensure that freshwater ecosystems can support sustainable food supplies. The team will study how networks of small riverine reserves contribute to local food security by maintaining large populations of fish. After identifying attributes of these reserves that maximize local harvest without eroding protected populations, they will formulate a set of guidelines to apply to inland fisheries around the world.

The Atkinson Postdoctoral Fellowships in Sustainability are made possible by gifts from David ’60 and Patricia Atkinson.

Kate Frazer is a freelance journalist working with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

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