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UCLA launches program to train students on sustainable food, energy and water management

Initiative funded by $3 million grant from National Science Foundation

Meghan Steele Horan | August 4, 2017

The ongoing global trend of migration into large cities will only heighten the need for urban planning focused on sustainability. (Image courtesy of Perkins + Will)

By 2030, roughly 60 percent of the world’s inhabitants will live in cities, up from just 34 percent in 1960. As a result of that population shift, much larger amounts of food, energy and water will need to be transported into urban centers, often from far away, creating a new and massive array of complex socioeconomic and urban planning challenges.

Thanks to a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s NSF Research Traineeship program, UCLA is introducing a program to train graduate students to address those challenges. Those who complete the program will be prepared to fill a critical void in the workforce: helping growing urban centers thrive under the pressure of global climate change.

Led by Laurent Pilon, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, the UCLA initiative will provide training in research, education and communication. The program will draw expertise from numerous units across campus. Its co-leads are professors Paula Diaconescu (chemistry), Stephanie Pincetl (Institute of the Environment and Sustainability), Amy Rowat (integrative biology and physiology) and Lawren Sack (ecology and evolutionary biology).

“This program will bring together a diverse and interdisciplinary team of UCLA faculty to train graduate students on the relationship between food, energy and water in urban settings,” Pilon said. “UCLA is a world-class research institution in the second-largest city in the U.S. We are well-positioned to apprehend the challenges and develop innovative solutions toward a sustainable city that can serve as a template to others.”

Among the campus units participating are the UCLA College, the California NanoSystems Institute, the Graduate Division, the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, UCLA Extension, the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Fielding School of Public Health.

Students in the program will receive classroom and hands-on training on urban systems; waste reduction and upscaling; urban sustainability; and integrated solutions for food, energy and water systems management that can be implemented in Los Angeles. They’ll also be able to attend a new business and entrepreneurship seminar series.

The program supports the objectives of UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, which aims to transition Los Angeles County to 100 percent renewable energy and 100 percent locally sourced water by 2050, while enhancing ecosystem and human health.

“The new initiative will train graduate students to become leaders in sustainability and give them the opportunity to conduct research that will help the Los Angeles region become more sustainable,” said Mark Gold, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability.

In addition to performing research, the students will work with the California NanoSystems Institute to create experiments on food, energy and water sustainability for CNSI’s outreach program for high school students. Students will also receive coaching on how to communicate with the public, elected officials, peers, news media and other stakeholders about complex science and technology issues. And the program will provide opportunities to pursue policy-focused internships with various stakeholders, including local municipal governments.

“Meeting the challenges faced by global urban centers like Los Angeles requires an interdisciplinary approach developed in concert with informed public policies and laws with an urban and global perspective,” Diaconescu said. “An understanding of these crucial links is essential for leaders in science, technology, government and industry.”

The program will continue to benefit UCLA and Los Angeles even beyond the five years covered by the grant. The Institute of the Environment and Sustainability will introduce three graduate-level courses on food, energy and water sustainability for a newly approved doctoral program in environment and sustainability.

“This program will create bridges for new science and communication among disciplines and UCLA units,” Sack said. “These urgent issues are ones we face as a society, and this program is an extraordinarily exciting opportunity for graduate training and education in science and engineering. We aim to develop a program deeply committed to developing new approaches for a sustainable UCLA and Los Angeles.”