Professor to study food-energy-water decision-making

Tim Schley
January 30, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Caitlin Grady, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, will examine the influences and interconnections between food, energy and water (FEW) systems thanks to a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award.

Grady seeks a thorough understanding of how FEW decisions are made surrounding connected critical infrastructure systems, such as power grids, commodity trade networks and transportation networks, and the consequences of those decisions.

“People who are managing infrastructure are often faced with decisions they have to make quickly,” said Grady. “They want to do the best they can, but there’s not much time to reflect on why you’re making a decision or how it impacts somebody 15 years later.

In her project, titled, “Ethical implications of connected critical infrastructure in the food-energy-water nexus,” Grady will bring together data from a variety of government agencies to model the relationships found within FEW systems in the mid-Atlantic region.

Assistant Professor Caitlin Grady posing for a portrait

Caitlin Grady, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute.

IMAGE: Penn State

As patterns emerge in the data, Grady will search for answers to questions such as how efficiently are we using these resources, what happens when there are disruptions to critical services and is there anyone disproportionately affected?

“It’s hard to model interdependencies,” said Grady. “When you have to model things that are hard to model even by themselves, it gets really, really complicated.”

Grady will also meet with local leaders in the area to learn how choices are made in situations with a lot of uncertainty, such as preparing for a future disaster. Recognizing what the decision-maker valued in that moment, she noted, will go a long way to making the model as applicable as possible.

“Every day, we all make decisions based on our values. If you can better understand how these values influence the system, you might learn something interesting,” said Grady.

The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research, according to the NSF website.

With the five-year, $509,000 NSF CAREER award, Grady will focus on inclusion and mentorship in the civil and environmental engineering fields by enabling undergraduate and graduate research opportunities for underrepresented groups.

“We’re really at a disadvantage if we’re not actively seeking to increase representation and diversity in our ranks at all levels,” said Grady. “I’m really committed in this proposal to using this grant money to enable opportunities for students who otherwise might not have opportunities to learn about research.”

Grady joined Penn State as an assistant professor in 2017. She received her master’s degree in agricultural and biological engineering and her doctoral degree in civil and environmental engineering from Purdue University. Grady is an affiliate faculty member with the School of International Affairs and was named the inaugural Faculty Fellow for the Penn State Center for Security Research and Education (CSRE) in 2018.

The research that led to the NSF grant was partially funded by CSRE, which supports interdisciplinary research around security threats.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021