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Binghamton earns top ranking in sustainability research

 

Binghamton University now boasts a No. 1 ranking in sustainability research from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).

The campus is part of a five-way tie with Florida State University; University of California, Irvine; UC Merced and UC San Diego, which each earned a score of more than 100 percent.

Jessica Hua, an assistant professor of biology, says although she is not surprised Binghamton ranks at the top for sustainability research, she is glad her community is getting the recognition it deserves.

“I think we know that we have committed people here doing research on this topic that work so hard, so to get that recognition is fantastic,” Hua says. “It wasn’t on my radar, but in terms of the quality of research I am not surprised at all. My colleagues are incredible.”

AASHE ranks universities in 17 different subsets of sustainability based on self-reports. The research subset score is derived from the amount of research on sustainability, as counted by number of faculty and departments.

Binghamton’s report shows that of 601 faculty and staff who conduct research, 156 of them focus on sustainability. That 25.96 percent brought the campus well over the 15 percent needed for a perfect score.

The report also shows 42 departments have at least one faculty member who conducts research. Of the 42, 34 of them have at least one who conducts sustainability research. The 80.85 percent score also tops the “perfect” mark of 75 percent.

To put a spotlight on key subjects, the University created five Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence (TAEs) in 2013. One of the TAEs focuses on Sustainable Communities. Carl Lipo, director of environmental studies, and Robert Holahan, associate professor in environmental studies, co-chair the TAE and bring faculty together from several departments.

“The TAE’s goal has always been to bring people from across campus with a similar research interest together,” Holahan says. “There’s 10 of us from the TAE who got together and have been working on a series of papers on sustainable communities. Without having a centralized foci, a place to go once a week, how are you going to meet those people?”

In addition to sparking research collaborations, the TAE also awards seed grants to support research and hosts a sustainability lecture series. A dozen faculty and staff members make up the TAE’s steering committee; about 30 people receive the group’s newsletter.

Hua, who participates in the TAE, runs a research lab focused on wetlands ecology and conservation. Much of the lab’s research looks at artificial stressors on populations, such as the effect of road salt on amphibians.

Hua says conservation research findings need to be presented in a way that the general public can understand.

“I think how we link conservation and sustainability in our research is really through education,” she says. “What that means to me is to link art and science through art shows that tell the story of our publications, children’s books to get kids interested in ecology and parasite ecology, things like card games and lesson plans for K through 12 educators.”

Binghamton’s proposed Nuthatch Hollow Living Building is another signature effort in sustainability. Besides being a center for sustainability education, the University also aims for it to be one of the few in the world to meet the Living Building Challenge standards, which require buildings to produce more energy than they use.

Mark Poliks, chair of the Smart Energy TAE, says research and innovations in smart energy are building blocks to a sustainable future and projects like the living building.

“The Smart Energy TAE is really involved in the technology that could eventually go into a learning building, or go into a facility where energy is being managed, energy is being harvested or energy is being stored,” Poliks says.

Faculty members associated with the Smart Energy TAE fit into four broad areas: solar and thermoelectric energy harvesting, energy storage, energy efficiency in electronic systems and sensor development for energy resource management. Some researchers in this group are looking at battery efficiency and alternative energy harvesting, like solar cells, to provide a more sustainable future.

“More and more homes are having solar on it, and as the technology gets upgraded it will be both safe and affordable to have an appropriate battery pack in the house so that you can power the house in the evening and not have to rely on the grid,” Poliks says.

Lipo says Binghamton’s attention to sustainability helped him decide to come to work here four years ago. Now, he says, the AASHE ranking will promote the idea even more.

“We want our campus to be known for sustainability,” Lipo says. “This recognition will attract even more students and faculty who are passionate about sustainability and we will continue to grow in that regard.”

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