Interdisciplinary research proves essential when working on Food-Energy-Water

December 13, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State researchers from all disciplines are getting involved in the Food-Energy-Water (FEW) nexus. Considering the intricate nature of FEW, many researchers believe that an interdisciplinary approach is critical.

FEW is complex because each facet is critical and is tightly linked to the others. A change in one facet will likely trigger a change in one or both of the others, making solutions more difficult to determine.

Tom Richard, director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE), noted that because the challenges at the Food-Energy-Water nexus are so complicated, the meaningful solutions required will need the skills and perspectives of many different disciplines.

“Among the many benefits of diverse interdisciplinary teams is that the members get to listen and learn from each other, with the resulting cross-pollination of ideas stimulating the disruptive innovation that FEW challenges often demand,” Richard said. “This creative process is not only critical for success but incredibly rewarding for our students, our faculty and the communities they work with.”

Ismaila Dabo, assistant professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Earth and Minerals Sciences and IEE faculty member, is leading an interdisciplinary team for a $1.2 million National Science Foundation project. He said having an interdisciplinary team has been indispensable to his research.

Ismaila Dabo (right) speaks with one of his graduate students

Ismaila Dabo (right) speaks with one of his graduate students.

IMAGE: Kevin Sliman

Dabo and his team are working to identify a material that can efficiently separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, collecting hydrogen as a sustainable fuel source. They will then determine how hydrogen fuel may be used as a clean alternative for transportation and residential applications, such as heating a home.

“The search for materials that can absorb sunlight to produce hydrogen is an interdisciplinary problem that requires us to examine tens of thousands of candidate materials at both the physical and chemical levels,” Dabo said. “It is our hope that this joint approach will enable us to discover new photocatalysis at a much faster rate than without interdisciplinary cross-pollination.”

Interdisciplinary work has proven essential for Rachel Brennan, associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering. In her work with duckweed, Brennan recognized that this tiny plant needed a team of collaborators if its full potential was going to be realized.

Duckweed hyperaccumulates nutrients from waste streams, cleaning surface water and simultaneously converting those nutrients into proteins, which can be used as an accessible food for humans and even as fodder for livestock and fish. Additionally, it makes for a great natural fertilizer, minimizing waste and increasing food production.

Rachel Brennan and her students look into a vat in the Eco-Machine

Rachel Brennan and her students look into a vat in the Eco-Machine.

IMAGE: Penn State

“To move toward a sustainable society, the recovery of nutrients from the environment and the reuse of those nutrients in agriculture is the key to food security,” Brennan said. “A variety of experts are needed to critically evaluate the technical, economic and social feasibility of this enterprise. Over the years, we have collaborated with plant, food and soil scientists, as well as specialists in science communication and life-cycle assessment.”

Interdisciplinary work is becoming more prevalent when it comes to research. In an effort to acclimate graduate students to interdisciplinary work, a Penn State professor is helping lead a National Science Foundation-funded training grant called Landscape-U.

The principal investigator, Erica Smithwick, is an IEE faculty member and professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. She is also the director of the Ecology Institute and Center for Landscape Dynamics at Penn State. 

"Landscape-U will train the next generation of researchers to deftly cross disciplinary boundaries and work in partnership with stakeholders to co-create and co-produce solutions,” Smithwick said. “It is imperative that up-and-coming researchers are fluent in interdisciplinary work because the challenges we are facing are multiplying and transforming, getting more complex as our world changes."

This training grant will provide students with the skills to address complex FEW issues specifically in the Chesapeake Bay watershed as well as globally by linking faculty and students across multiple Penn State colleges and campuses to develop solutions.

“The FEW nexus is in need of interdisciplinary answers because the human demand for food, for example, is growing and with it so are the stresses that are being placed on the rest of the nexus,” Smithwick said. “Collaboration across disciplines is no longer something researchers can dismiss if they want to find implementable science that will make real-world impacts.”

Penn State researchers are partnering with stakeholders internationally in efforts to solve FEW challenges. In the summer of 2018, a group of Penn State researchers traveled to Nigeria to participate in the first FEW workshop, co-hosted by Penn State Global Programs and its core partners in West Africa.

A group of workshop participants in Ibadan, Nigeria, sitting in a park

A group of FEW workshop participants in Ibadan, Nigeria.

IMAGE: Penn State

Some outcomes of the FEW workshop in Nigeria included suggestions to increase productivity using the FEW nexus approach, improve FEW systems at a household and community level, and develop new food value chains.

According to Rob Crane, associate vice provost for Global Programs, building resilience in these FEW systems requires interdisciplinary work and local partnerships in order to fully understand the complexities.

“Understanding how to manage those systems requires that you have scientists, engineers, social scientists, political scientists, economists all working together,” Crane said. “The more complex the system becomes, then the more we need those different disciplines. One of the advantages Penn State has in this is that we do have a long history of interdisciplinary research.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 14, 2018