NatureNet Fellows 2015: Energy Tech from Clams, Rethinking Island Biogeography & More

2015 NatureNet Fellow Sanaz Vahidinia is developing completely new, highly efficient photovoltaic clean energy technologies and devices based on the light-scattering cells of giant clams, like this one. Photo © Nemo's great uncle/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Six accomplished young scientists have been selected to the third cohort of NatureNet Science Fellows, a Nature Conservancy partnership designed to help kick-start conservation solutions for the most pressing challenges facing people and nature in the 21st century – confronting the climate crisis, which means new energy technology, and feeding 9 billion people without dirtying our water or degrading our ecosystems.

“The NatureNet Science Fellows Program is becoming the premier applied science post-doc for conservation science in the world,” says Peter Kareiva, Conservancy chief scientist. “This class builds on the inaugural cohorts and resets the bar for achievement, innovation and creative problem-solving.”

Many of this year’s Fellows are using tools, techniques and theories that weren’t even dreamt of as little as five years ago. In projects from New York to Costa Rica, Kenya to Ghana, the Fellows are developing and field testing solutions-based science, including projects to:

Develop completely new, highly efficient photovoltaic clean energy technologies and devices based on the light-scattering cells of giant clams;

Eliminate grazing conflicts between domestic livestock and the iconic animals of Africa’s grasslands using novel methods of DNA analysis; and

Develop the first comprehensive water management plan for the entire state of New York using new hydroeconomic models.

“Research is the necessary foundation for solutions to global problems such as the climate crisis,” notes Roy Vagelos, a founding funder of the NatureNet Fellowship program, a member of the Conservancy’s board of directors and a former president, CEO and chairman of Merck & Co.

giant clam
Sanaz Vahidinia studying a giant clam. Photo courtesy of Sanaz Vahidinia

“With its emphasis on energy and new technologies as well as traditional conservation, it’s exciting to see the NatureNet Fellowship integrate the Conservancy’s broad and long-standing scientific capacity in biology and ecology with engineering, economics, chemistry, physics, and other disciplines that are necessary to solving global sustainability challenges.”

The 2015 NatureNet Science Fellows and Their Projects

Maura Allaire (Columbia, water supply and management)

Allaire is developing the first comprehensive approach to water management for the entire state of New York by creating a new hydroeconomic model that accounts for hydrologic estimations of state-wide stream flows, economic measures, and links between water use, land use, and economic activity.

Aaron Iverson (Cornell, expanding sustainable food production)

Iverson is advancing sustainable agriculture by developing quantified models that help farmers simultaneously limit toxic agrochemicals, produce sufficient food, and provide the best returns in three key areas: economic profitability, biodiversity conservation, and the protection of ecosystem services.

Tyler Kartzinel (Princeton, harmonizing human-wildlife-livestock co-existence)

Kartzinel seeks to protect the livelihoods of pastoralists and the biodiversity of Africa’s Central Grasslands by enabling range managers to predict and mitigate potential wildlife-livestock competition among herbivores through the use of novel broad-spectrum DNA-based analysis that forensically identifies which plants different species are eating, as well as where and when they’re grazing.

Chase Mendenhall (Stanford, develop and test a new theory of biogeography)

Mendenhall’s work will improve the application of conservation science in the real world by field testing a new framework of countryside biogeography that, unlike the prevailing theory of island biogeography, accurately accounts for the influences human-made habitats — like farmland — have on wildlife, and equip conservation scientists and policymakers with much-needed tools to better assess the true tradeoffs between wildlife habitat and food production.

Sanaz Vahidinia (University of Pennsylvania, developing nature-inspired clean energy technologies)

Vahidinia’s work focuses on engineering new photovoltaic and photobioreactant clean energy materials and devices that radically improve solar energy efficiency by understanding and adapting the sophisticated light-scattering cells of Giant Clams.

Stephen Wood (Yale, managing soils for sustainable agriculture)

Wood will enable farmers in Africa’s Green Revolution to manage their farms and secure the food they need without damaging the ecosystems they also need by combining new research in soil ecology, as well as qualitative and quantitative social science, to develop ag management practices that sustain crop production, soil health and protect associated ecosystems.

About NatureNet

“Now in its third year, the NatureNet Science Fellowship is one of the Conservancy’s most innovative and successful programs,” says Mark Tercek, president and CEO of the Conservancy.

“As NatureNet Fellows pursue projects that blend the rigor of academic conservation science with the potential for rapid deployment and application to real-world conservation in the field, they are also developing the skills and experience we need now, and in the next generation of science leaders.”

The Fellows begin their two-year assignments this fall, working within the Conservancy’s U.S. and international programs.

Jointly mentored by a Conservancy expert and a senior scholar from one of the NatureNet partner universities — Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, or Yale — fellows pursue research that promises to deliver crucial answers around nanotechnology, sustainable development, food production, clean water supplies, energy futures, and urban ecology.

Cara Cannon Byington

Cara Cannon Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. More from Cara

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