Research for a sustainable future

Author: Dana Bakirtjy, ND Works

ND Works

Sustainability is often thought about strictly as an environmental issue: recycling, limiting emissions or protecting wildlife. But sustainability is more than just planting trees and driving hybrid cars. More than 140 faculty members in 36 University departments are currently conducting sustainability research on topics ranging from corporate social responsibility to the use of quantum dots in solar cells.

Debra Javeline, political science

            As climate change progresses, it will touch every human being on Earth in one way or another. How effectively we adapt to these changes depends entirely on the choices we make and the actions we take. Debra Javeline, associate professor of political science, and her interdisciplinary team are taking on the challenge of influencing sustainable behavior change in the most at-risk coastal communities across the United States.

            The Storm Hazard and Risk Model (StHaRM), currently under review for a grant from the National Science Foundation, is a collaboration among Notre Dame engineers, social scientists, computer scientists and geoscientists that aims to analyze coastal communities and provide individualized risk assessments to property owners to help them adapt to climate change.

            “The idea of the project is to combine hard science, social science and the public good into an easyto-use educational tool for the consumer,” says Javeline. “Although FEMA provides documents with recommendations for certain areas, the documents are often complicated and it’s easy for the average consumer to get overwhelmed and do nothing.”

            The goal is to find ways to target individual property owners with very specific recommendations—helping them adapt their property to climate change, and in the process helping both themselves and the public good.

Jennifer Tank, biology

            Invasive species and access to fresh water are both environmental, economic and personal challenges to people across the world and in our own backyards, says Jennifer Tank, interim director of the Environmental Change Initiative, director of ND-LEEF (the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility), and Galla Professor of Biological Sciences. Tank hopes that her research at ND-LEEF, located in northwestern St. Joseph County at St. Patrick’s County Park, can be a piece of the puzzle to solving these problems.

            Through a collaboration with Notre Dame hydrologists, Tank’s first project aims to understand how the size of the substrate on the bottom of a stream affects the biology of that stream. “Since streams influenced by agriculture or urban impacts often are filled with very fine sediments, we’re interested in seeing if coarsening the substrates will help restore damaged streams to their original function,” she says.

            Expanding upon Notre Dame’s eDNA research, which uses environmental DNA as a conservation tool to identify the presence of aquatic species, her second project examines how this material flows through water. A crucial component to understanding the spread of invasive species—understanding the factors that influence how quickly eDNA degrades and is absorbed by a stream—may allow researchers to provide ecosystem managers an indication of where to explore further for a particular species.

            ND-LEEF also incorporates sustainability in a more concrete sense with the recent completion of the Morrison Family Education and Outreach Pavilion. In collaboration with Aimee Buccellato, assistant professor of architecture, the pavilion was sustainably designed and built.

            Through state-of-the-art video displays donated by Corning and the Martin Curran Family, the pavilion shows not only what’s going on in the experiments but also the entire life cycle analysis of the materials used to construct it.

Prashant Kamat, chemistry

            Worldwide energy demand increases about 2 percent a year. This means that in the next 35 years, the demand for energy will double. In order to keep up with increasing demand, alternative and sustainable energy sources such as solar power must be developed and utilized. On the forefront of solar cell material development for over 30 years, Prashant Kamat leads the Kamat Lab in the Notre Dame Radiation Laboratory. The lab currently includes about 20 undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researchers working on nanostructure architectures and energy conversion processes.

            With support from the Department of Energy, NDEnergy and the Strategic Research Initiative, Kamat’s lab is finding new materials that both improve solar cell efficiency and can be recreated anywhere at a low cost and with a small environmental footprint.

            Focusing on equipment utilizing earth-abundant materials, low temperatures and “low-tech” fabrication techniques which allow for a greater market scalability and lower end costs to users, his lab concentrates on developing two different types of materials: nanomaterials—materials 10 or 20 million times thinner than a human hair, and perovskites—a broad class of materials that are the source of the fastest advancing solar technology to date, with an increase in efficiency from 3.8 percent in 2009 to 20.1 percent in 2014.

Patrick E. Murphy, business

            Sustainability isn’t just limited to science applications. Because of demand from consumers, sustainability is increasingly being incorporated into the business plans of corporations around the world. From sustainability reports to supply chain transparency, momentum is building to embrace sustainability as an assumed business practice.

            Patrick Murphy, professor of marketing, has watched this trend develop since the 1970s. A participant in the first Earth Day in 1970, Murphy has since become a leading scholar in corporate sustainability and ethics. By comparing historical environmental interests from the 1970s with those of today, Murphy has produced a body of knowledge that explains how changes in corporate sustainability have developed and affect business today.

            “Things like climate change and endangered species, these are some of the topics that we really didn’t see 30 years ago that are much more in evidence now,” says Murphy. “Levi Strauss is now putting washing instructions in their jeans because they realize that once they sell the product, that’s where a lot of energy use falls out of their hands. That wasn’t even a consideration ten years ago.”

            From his perspective, the only way to go is up. “I think all of these things fit together in a mosaic, and to me the good news is that there’s a lot more attention and focus on them in the second decade of the 21st century, certainly more than when I started and more than even 10 years ago.”


            ND-LEEF is a research facility within the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, which supports innovative research programs that help solve complex environmental problems, including the interrelated problems of invasive species, land use, and climate change and their synergistic impacts on freshwater. Based in South Bend’s St. Patrick’s County Park, ND-LEEF is a globally unique research site due to its two replicated watersheds that contain linked streams, ponds and wetlands. These watersheds provide a platform for cutting-edge environmental research in a setting that mimics nature, yet is highly controlled and replicable.

            The Morrison Family Education and Outreach Pavilion at ND-LEEF translates the research done in the fields and streams to anyone interested in the ecological research, including members of the public, researchers and students, ranging from children to adult-learners.

            It is also designed to help raise awareness among community members about issues related to environmental change and sustainability, and—especially given its central location within a popular county park—will serve as a critical bridge between the classroom and the field for students of all ages.

Biologist Jennifer Tank collects water samples at a field ecology research site in Kosciusko County. ND LEEF, located in St. Patrick’s County Park, will offer the opportunity for ecological research to researchers, students and the public.jennifer_tank_4