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This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey FitzpatrickResearch Recap Graphic Identifier: Thanksgiving Edition

I come from a big family so on holidays – Thanksgiving in particular – the kitchen can get pretty hectic. This inevitably ends with someone breaking, spilling, or burning something.

While a burnt turkey would be a major disappointment to some of us, it’s the least of kitchen worries for nearly half of the people in the world, who rely on the use of open fires and traditional cookstoves and fuels to cook their food. Cookstove smoke is a major contributor to dangerous indoor air quality, affecting the health of millions.

EPA is an international leader in clean cookstove research and we’ve highlighted some of those efforts this week.

  • Clean Cookstoves Research: An Opportunity to Benefit Billions
    Bryan Bloomer, Ph.D. joined EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and other prominent leaders this week at the first ever ministerial- and CEO-level Cookstoves Future Summit, “Fueling Markets, Catalyzing Action, Changing Lives,” in New York City.
    Read more.
  • EPA Clean Cookstove Research
    EPA provides independent scientific data on cookstove emissions and energy efficiency to support the development of cleaner sustainable cooking technologies. EPA also conducts studies to understand the health effects from exposure to emissions from cookstoves.
    Read more.

And here’s some more research that has been highlighted this week.

  • Highlighting the Health-protective Properties of Alaskan Berries (your Elders already knew)
    Regions of the Alaskan arctic tundra are considered to be on the ‘front lines’ of climate change. The climate exerts a decisive impact on terrestrial plants, including the wild indigenous berries that thrive even above the tree line, the most hostile environments throughout the state.
    Read more.
  • UMass Amherst Receives $4.1 million EPA grant for Drinking Water Research
    EPA award a grant of $4.1 million to the University of Massachuessets, Amherst to establish the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems (WINSS), which will develop and test advanced, low-cost methods to reduce, control and eliminate various groups of water contaminants in small water treatment systems.
    Read more.

If you have any comments or questions about what I share or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section!

 

About the Author: Student contractor Kacey Fitzpatrick is thankful for her new job writing about EPA research for the Agency’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Highlighting the Health-protective Properties of Alaskan Berries (your Elders already knew)

November is Native American Heritage month. Throughout the month, we will be featuring blogs related to Tribal Science.

By Mary Ann Lila

I was ecstatic when the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program put out the request for applications for the study of tribal resources and climate change. My office mate was a rural sociologist, so we put our heads together and wrote up a plan for research that we’d been hoping to tackle for years: wild Alaskan berries.

Native Alaskan elder and researcher examine a wild plant.

“Wildcrafting” with a Native Alaskan.

Regions of the Alaskan arctic tundra are considered to be on the ‘front lines’ of climate change. The dramatic consequences of climate-related shifts are most evident around coastal areas. For example, the retreating glaciers, and the shrinking sea ice that diminishes hunting territory for walrus and polar bears.

But in the arctic, the climate also exerts a decisive impact on terrestrial plants, including the wild indigenous berries that thrive even above the tree line, the most hostile environments throughout the state. Frequently these berries (mossberries, salmonberries, bog blueberries and more) also proliferate around Alaska Native communities, where they are one of the only wild edible resources from the land (most other foods are obtained from the sea or as shipped-in commodities).

Berries that have adapted to flourish in the arctic are able to survive environmental insults by accumulating a cornucopia of defensive, natural plant chemicals. The chemicals help to buffer the berries against the ravages of climate extremes, but once ingested, these same chemicals can be healthy. They help Alaskan natives resist many insults of chronic diseases, including the power of the berry to inhibit diabetes symptoms.

Will climate change have an effect on this revered native resource? On the one hand, moderating temperatures may allow berry harvests to occur more routinely. On the other hand, the moderating climate may lead to competing species invading berry habitat. And perhaps most importantly, will the berries fail to accumulate protective plant chemicals at such high concentrations? The answers aren’t immediately clear, and only long-term, sustained studies will begin to unravel the true impacts of climate change on the berry resources.

November is Native American Heritage Month.

November is Native American Heritage Month.

In our work, the Tribal communities around Point Hope, Akutan (in the Aleutian Islands) and Seldovia have been gracious hosts to the analyses, and have been receptive to learning more about how science tests demonstrate the power of the berries against disease targets.

Not only have the Elders joined in the science based studies, but they’ve gladly contributed the background traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) about how berries have been historically valued and used in their communities, as a control of blood glucose and a healthy metabolism. Elders have been happy to show the youth in the Tribal communities, with their own eyes, that modern science agrees with, and validates TEK.

About the Author: Mary Ann Lila is the Director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University. Her research team has worked for nearly a decade in Alaska with the berries and other native wild plants, which she considers to be the prime example of how plants’ adaptations to harsh environments ultimately protect human consumers of that plant.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleCompetition can bring out the best in people or the worst in people. Anyone who’s been watching the World Series or following football this season knows what I mean.

But when it comes to competing for sustainability, everybody wins! Read about the student teams selected to compete for this year’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) Awards and more in the research highlighted this week.

  • EPA Announces Winning P3 Student Teams
    Since 2004, the P3 Program has provided funding to student teams in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, committing over $10 million to cutting-edge, sustainable projects designed by university students. Read more.
  • EPA Supporting Next Generation of Environmental Scientists Through 105 Fellowship Grants
    EPA announced that 105 graduate students across the nation will receive $8.6 million in Science to Achieve Results fellowship grants to conduct research on topics ranging from climate change and public health to water quality and sustainability that will have cross-cutting impacts in the environmental science field. Read more.
  • Turning Back Time: Repairing Water Infrastructure
    The estimated costs of fixing old, leaky, and cracked pipes through the traditional methods could cost water utilities in excess of $1 trillion dollars over the next 20 years. Innovative, lower cost technologies that could provide alternatives would have enormous impact, but how do utilities know where to turn before they make investments in long-term solutions? Read more.
  • Sustainability and Resilience: Making the Connection
    EPA’s Alan Hecht, Ph.D. offers a new, forward thinking definition of resilience for communities, companies, and others to consider and strive for in the paper Resilience: Navigating toward a Sustainable Future. EPA is looking at research tools and approaches that address and advance community resilience and climate adaptation. Read more.
  • Green Infrastructure Research
    Check out the latest issue of our newsletter EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Green Infrastructure Research and join EPA researchers on October 29 from 2:00-3:00pm ET on twitter to talk about green infrastructure! Questions should be sent to the hashtag #EnvSciChat.

If you have any comments or questions about what I share or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section!

About the Author: About the Author: Kacey Fitzpatrick is a student contractor and writer working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Schools, Children’s Health and the Environment

By Shao Lin and Christine Kielb

How do environmental hazards and policies affect children’s health and school performance?

Group photo of health schools research team

Healthy Schools Group, from L to R: Melissa Frisbee , Nazia Saiyed, Christine Kielb, Cristian Pantea, Amanda St. Louis, Michele Herdt-Losavio, Neil Muscatiello, Shao Lin.

Thanks to support from the EPA Science To Achieve Results (STAR) program, we explored those questions. Our project is the first to addresses multiple aspects of environmental health and schools, such as developing indicators related to school locations, and how to develop methodologies for assessing and improving school health.

With EPA support, we are: 1) developing and enhancing Environmental Public Health Indicators (EPHI) representing environmental hazards, children’s school performance, and health; 2) exploring new methodologies for assessing exposure sources; 3) assessing how school environments, along with location and socio-economic status affect children’s health; and 4) evaluating the effectiveness of efforts to protect children’s environmental health in New York, such as the New York State Clean air School Bus Program and school bus idling regulations.

EPA support also enabled us to extend or continue our previous activities, including: tracking how school building conditions and asthma hospitalizations change over time in New York; surveying school nurses, custodians, district facility directors, and teachers to identify environmental problems—and potential solutions—facing schools; and examining how the surrounding neighborhood, specifically a school’s proximity to facilities such as hazardous waste sites, major roads, or airports might increase childhood asthma risk. We also assessed the impacts of healthy school characteristics related to indoor air quality, ventilation, cleanliness, thermal comfort, lighting and acoustics on student attendance, academic performance, and respiratory health.

Image of a schoolWe found some important results. For example, our work showed an association between missed school days and certain poor conditions in the school: visible mold, humidity, poor ventilation, and vermin. Having six or more individual such building-related problems was also associated with student absenteeism. Further, these associations were strongest among schools in lower socioeconomic districts, and in schools attended by younger students. We also found district-level childhood asthma hospitalizations to be related to poor condition of roofing, windows, exterior wall, floor finishes, and boiler or furnace.

When looking at air quality, we found that the control policy for nitrogen oxides (NOx) may have had a positive impact on both state-wide and regional air pollution levels and respiratory health. The positive effect varied by children with different types of respiratory diseases, region, and socio-demographic characteristics.

Our EPA-supported research is providing important data and information, informing our work developing and implementing a sustainable school environmental health program for New York State. We have shared our findings with a Steering Committee consisting of approximately 50 key school environmental health stakeholders, including superintendents, facilities managers, teachers, state agencies, physicians and advocacy groups, and have been working on plans to address existing and emerging environmental problems challenging schools. With these efforts well under way, we fully expect our findings to lead to healthier students, teaches, and other school occupants throughout New York.    

About the Authors: EPA grantee Dr. Shao Lin (MD, Ph.D.), has more than 20 years of experience directing environmental studies, including climate/weather factors, air pollution, heavy traffic exposure, residential exposure to urban air pollution, health effects among New York City residents living near Ground Zero, and a series of school environmental health projects.

Christine  Kielb has worked as an epidemiologist in the area of school environmental health since 2002, and has coordinated various school environmental health projects. She has played a major role in developing, conducting and analyzing surveys of school nurses, custodians facilities managers, and teachers regarding school environments and health. 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Nutrient Management: Always on My Mind

By James R. Mihelcic, PhD, BCEEM

EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic

EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic

I am inspired to solve the complex problem of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) management every day.  I think about solving this problem when I tend my winter garden of lettuce and peppers, around my neighborhood as I watch stormwater race from lawns to the Hillsborough River, in the classroom, and when I spend time outdoors enjoying our nation’s waters.

And I am in good company with my thoughts. You see, the National Academy of Engineering has identified managing the nitrogen cycle as one of their Grand Challenges.

I even started my New Year by canoeing in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and got to thinking about nutrients.  This was because some of the springs that feed the refuge have developed the tell-tale signs of nutrient pollution (green, slimy-looking plant growth) from on-site wastewater generation and lawn runoff from surrounding homes.  On that day we were also welcomed into the winter home of a group of manatees.  Manatees depend on sea grass for survival, and excessive nutrients cloud coastal waters, preventing sea grass growth. 

With support from an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant, we established our Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management, which is transforming my daily thinking to everyday reality.  We are reimagining aging coastal urban infrastructure systems to consider nutrient recovery and management that contribute to sustainable and healthy communities.

Manatee at a U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Manatee at a U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I have great expectations for our Center research and demonstrations.  Our goals are to develop the science behind new technology and management innovations, and to develop a deep understanding of integrated systems.  We will demonstrate and assess innovations to provide new knowledge for students, community members, practitioners, and other stakeholders.

We are even transforming how we educate new engineers. For example, our new textbook, Environmental Engineering: Fundamentals, Sustainability, Design integrates sustainability and nutrient concepts into every chapter, and has the potential to reach over 10,000 undergraduate engineers every year.

Our research will benefit the public because poor water quality lowers the economic, social, and environmental value of our nation’s waters for current and future generations. 

In Florida, our springs, rivers, estuaries, coastal waters, and the Everglades all suffer because of nutrient pollution.  We have already come up with some ways to help manage nutrient pollution while also meeting the agricultural needs to provide national and global food security. For example, we have shown that 22% of the global demand for phosphorus could be met if we just recovered this valuable resource from domestic wastewater. We’ve also shown how wastewater infrastructure that serves a rapidly urbanizing world can be integrated with recovery of valuable water and nutrients to improve food security.

You can see why nutrients are always on my mind.  I hope they are now on yours.

About the author: EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic is a Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and State of Florida 21st Century World Class Scholar at the University of South Florida (Tampa), where he directs the Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Braving the Weather to Promote Green Infrastructure in Philadelphia

Reposted from “EPA Connect, the official blog of EPA’s leadership

 

CEQ Chair and EPA Deputy Administrator brave the snow.

Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley and EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe brave the snow in Philadelphia.

 

By Bob Perciasepe 

Yesterday, I was up in Philadelphia joined by CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley and Mayor Nutter to announce nearly $5 million in EPA grants made possible through the Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. These investments are going to five universities, and aim to fill gaps in research evaluating the costs and benefits of certain green infrastructure practices.

The projects to be invested in, led by Temple University, Villanova University, Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania and University of New Hampshire, will explore the financial and social costs and benefits associated with green infrastructure as a stormwater and wet weather pollution management tool.

read more…

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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One Career (of many) Built by the EPA STAR Program

By: David Cwiertny

I wouldn’t be the environmental engineer that I am today without the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, which funds research grants and graduate fellowships in environmental science and engineering disciplines. The research funded through this program complements EPA’s own, and that of other federal agencies, to help protect human health and the environment.

In 2004, I was entering the fourth year of my doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University.  As often happens near the end of a doctorate, my funding had dried up.  Finding new support was stressful and diverted my attention from research.  The EPA STAR graduate fellowship allowed me the financial and intellectual freedom to pursue my priority: development of new technologies to treat contaminated groundwater.

In addition to funding my research, the EPA STAR program let me interact with other Fellows at the STAR conference, integrating me into a peer network of excellence.  And because the fellowship is very competitive, it helped me secure a tenure-track faculty position at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).  That job ultimately led to my current position at the University of Iowa, where the EPA STAR program remains a vital source of support as I continue to grow my research program.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

Environmental Engineer David Cwiertny by the Iowa River.

In December 2011, I was awarded an EPA STAR grant to improve small drinking water systems.  Through this particular grant, my research program is trying to develop more efficient and cost-effect treatment technologies to improve the quantity and quality of drinking water in small, rural communities, many of which often lack adequate resources for a safe and reliable water supply.  The end result will be in-home treatment units that could be of tremendous value to the number of communities, in Iowa and beyond, that rely on private groundwater wells, many of which are compromised by pollutants such as arsenic and nitrate. During my tenure as a STAR grantee, I had the privilege of mentoring an EPA STAR Fellow, Rebekah Oulton, who received the award while working in my laboratory on related work trying to improve water and wastewater treatment technologies.

At all stages of my career, the EPA STAR program has been instrumental to my development as an environmental scientist and engineer.  EPA’s support has afforded me the flexibility and continuity to pursue my research, directly addressing current environmental challenges to our nation. I’ll forever be grateful to the investment EPA has made in me, as it has allowed me to fulfill my professional dreams and aspirations, and help protect our nation’s water resources and the health of the general public that rely on them.

About the Author:

David Cwiertny is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. He is a former EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship recipient and conducts research currently funded by the EPA STAR program. At the University of Iowa, he is a member of the campus-wide Water Sustainability Initiative, developing interdisciplinary research, outreach and education programs intended to increase water awareness at the university, within Iowa, and across the United States.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Advancing Children’s Environmental Health: Our Best Investment

Reposted from EPA Connect, the Official Blog of EPA’s Leadership

Group of children at schoolAnyone who has ever enjoyed watching a toddler explore their world knows that along with that marvelous sense of discovery comes potential trouble. Young children crawl around on the floor, play in the dirt, and don’t hesitate to retrieve a wayward cookie or other delectable treat hidden among the dust bunnies underneath the couch—and pop it straight into their mouth.

Behaviors like these, as well as their smaller bodies and still developing internal systems, make children more vulnerable to pollution and other environmental risks than us adults. That’s why we here at EPA make protecting children’s health a top priority.

read more…

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Research Partnership Advancing the Science of Organic Aerosols

By Sherri Hunt

Air monitoring research site with sensors and towers

Air monitoring research site with sensors and towers

Why is there so much interest in weather forecasts, maps, smoke, planes, balloons, towers, filters, instruments, cities, and trees in Alabama this summer? At this very moment, more than 100 scientists are making measurements at multiple locations in the Southeastern U.S. to investigate a number of challenging research questions related to organic aerosols—small particles suspended in the atmosphere. These particles contribute to concentrations of particulate matter (PM), which can influence both climate and people’s health.

The Southeastern U.S. is an ideal location to study the formation and physical properties of organic aerosol since it is hot, sunny, forested, and impacted by pollution from cities. In a coordinated research effort, scientists have converged at the primary surface site in Brent, AL. They are working there throughout June and July 2013 as part of the Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study (SOAS) and other related field campaigns, all coordinated under the Southern Atmosphere Study (SAS). Additional measurements are being made on the ground at sites in Research Triangle Park, NC, the Duke Forest, NC, and Look Rock, TN.

By using research towers, balloons, and several aircraft flying above the ground sites, scientists are taking measurements at multiple heights, making this the most detailed characterization of the southeastern atmosphere since the 1990s.

The planning for this campaign began more than two years ago as the scientific community identified the need for a rich data set in order to address pressing research questions related to how organic aerosol is formed and its impact on regional climate.  Improving the understanding of these physical and chemical properties will enable the development of more accurate models of air pollution and climate, which in turn will make more effective plans to improve air quality possible. Such scientific discoveries may enable us to better understand the atmosphere across the country and ultimately determine ways to enable more people to breathe cleaner air. They will also allow scientists to understand, anticipate, and prepare for potential future climate changes.

In order to accomplish a study of this magnitude, EPA is working together with the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others.

EPA is also funding 13 research institutions to participate through the Agency’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program. The STAR funded researchers will leverage the measurements and equipment provided by the other partners and conduct analyses of the rich data sets collected. Funded projects include work investigating each part of the organic aerosol system, from measuring emissions and formation products, to cloud-aerosol interactions, to climate impacts of aerosols.

In addition to field measurements, laboratory experiments and modeling studies are also planned that include EPA researchers. As part of EPA’s involvement, Agency scientists are using a novel tracer method that will allow them to differentiate between man-made and natural sources of organic aerosols. The data and results will help improve our understanding of organic aerosol formation and will also be shared with other researchers.

Public open houses at the Alabama and Tennessee sites on June 19 and 21, 2013 will allow the surrounding communities an opportunity to see the state-of-the-art measurement instruments and meet researchers. Interested?  If you are in the area, please consider coming by to see what all the interest is about.

About the Author

EPA researcher Dr. Sherri Hunt

EPA researcher Dr. Sherri Hunt

Sherri Hunt, Ph.D. is the Assistant Center Director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. Read more about Sherri and her work on her “EPA Science Matters” interview: Meet EPA Scientist Sherri Hunt, Ph.D.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Studying Plant and Insect Response to Environmental Change: A Love Story

By Jessica Dawn Pratt

EPA Fellow Jessica Pratt examines sagebrush.

EPA STAR Fellow Jessica Dawn Pratt

As a native Midwesterner, I was not impressed with the brown and shrubby coastal sage scrub ecosystem that covered hillsides around my new home when I moved to southern California in September of 2005. It was drab, short and prickly compared to the northern hardwood forests to which I was accustomed.

But, as an ecologist, I was excited to live in a “biodiversity hotspot,” a place that rivals the species diversity of many tropical forests and is home to numerous endemic and endangered plant and animal species.

I quickly learned that September was the end of the summertime drought that characterizes California’s Mediterranean climate. As I watched the brown and shrubby hillsides come to life with the winter rains, I fell in love with the coastal sage scrub ecosystem.

In addition to being incredibly diverse and unique, the coastal sage scrub ecosystem also faces many threats, including development, habitat fragmentation, pollution, climate change, invasive species, and wildfire. So, in 2008 when I began the Ph.D. program in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine, I was determined to work on questions related to its conservation and restoration. A Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship from EPA allowed me to do just that.

My graduate research examines how California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), an icon of the coastal sage scrub ecosystem, is responding to environmental changes like climate change and nitrogen pollution, and how the response of this important plant species affects the animals that depend on it.

It is my hope that understanding how important species respond to environmental change – and how those responses “scale up” throughout the ecosystem to affect other species – will help us predict and mitigate the impacts.

The first part of this work, published online in Global Change Biology and summarized on UC Irvine’s web site, shows that sagebrush in the southern part of its range will adjust better to climate change than sagebrush in the north.

To determine this, plants collected from a 400-mile stretch of coastal California were grown in experimental plots in Orange County where we tested their response to altered precipitation. Populations from southern sites, where year-to-year rainfall amounts have historically been rather variable, were more flexible to altered precipitation than populations from the north, where precipitation has been more predictable. The findings indicate that a species’ response to climate change won’t always be equal across its range.

Moreover, we saw that year-to-year variability in rainfall at weather stations across the species range is increasing more rapidly in the north, in the very regions where plants may be the least able to tolerate this effect of climate change. As such, including southern sagebrush in northern restoration plantings may be one way to ensure that we give this species an opportunity to adapt to our changing climate.

As we move forward with habitat conservation and restoration in this era of change, it may be prudent to consider the flexibility of the plants that we use in such endeavors so that the greening up of California’s shrubby hillsides each fall may continue long into the future.

About the Author: Jessica Pratt is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examining plant and insect community responses to environmental change in Southern California is funded through the EPA’s STAR Fellowship Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.