The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT recently announced the award of over $1.3 million in research funding through its seed grant program, now in its fourth year. These grants, which are available to the MIT community, are the cornerstone of MIT’s Institute-wide effort to catalyze solutions-oriented research in water and food systems that target the safety and resilience of the world’s vital resources.
This year, seven new projects led by eleven faculty PIs across five MIT departments will be funded with two-year grants of up to $200,000, overhead free. Faculty from six departments were funded under this year's awards, including the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), Materials Science and Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Mechanical Engineering.
Among EAPS awardees, Dara Entekhabi the Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, will be studying impacts of climate on agricultural production. The project, in collaboration with research scientist Sarah Fletcher from MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, is focused on Sub-Saharan Africa. This region is experiencing very high population growth, and with its largely rain-fed agriculture is particularly vulnerable to anticipated temperature and precipitation changes brought about by climate change. The MIT research team is leading an academic-industry partnership that seeks to understand how crop production in the region responds to year-to-year variation in precipitation in order to assess the future of food security in Africa. They will collaborate with Radiant Earth, a startup that uses a geospatial imagery technology platform to capture and understand the impact of social challenges in the developing world, to develop a better understanding of the impact of climate on food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.
A very different approach to improving agricultural productivity involves better understanding and managing soil fertility. In another innovative multidisciplinary project, three PIs whose expertise spans geoscience, archaeology, and materials engineering will collaborate to improve our understanding of extensive deposits of rich soils known as terra preta (“dark earth” in Portuguese) in the Amazon Basin that pre-Columbian societies created and cultivated between 500 and about 8,700 years ago. Many tropical soils are nutrient-poor and contain little organic carbon, but terra preta is so carbon-rich and fertile that it is still farmed (and destructively mined) today. Researchers are now attempting to reproduce terra preta as part of a strategy for sustainable tropical agriculture and carbon sequestration. The team consisting of Taylor Perron, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Dorothy Hosler and Heather Lechtman, both professors of archaeology and ancient technology in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, aims to inform agricultural practices in tropical developing nations by investigating how the rivers of the Amazon region influenced terra preta formation.
Other winning projects include a silk-based food safety sensor; research into climate vulnerability and resilience in agriculture using biological engineering as well as crop modeling and sensors; and three different strategies for water purification and management.
The reach of the J-WAFS’s seed grants across the Institute is wide and reflects how faculty from all schools at MIT are invested in addressing the critical challenges that face our most essential global resources. This J-WAFS call for seed research proposals attracted 54 principal investigators, nearly twice the number that submitted proposals in 2017. What is more, 38 of these PIs were proposing to J-WAFS for the first time. “The J-WAFS seed grants continue to stimulate new thinking about how to address some of our most serious water and food problems, whether by new junior faculty at MIT or senior professors,” noted Renee Robins, executive director of J-WAFS.
Dara Entekhabi is the Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor. Work in his Group spans a variety of topics in hydrology, including land-atmosphere interactions, surface water - groundwater interactions, data assimilation, and remote sensing with research covering both the areas of hydrometeorology and hydroclimatology. Recent projects have focused on land-atmosphere boundary layer estimation, remote sensing of precipitation and soil moisture, wintertime climate dynamics, designing and validating ground-based networks and urban canyon air flow. Entekhabi's Primary Appointment is in Civil and Environmental Engineering.
Taylor Perron is the Associate Professor of Geology, and Chair of the EAPS Program in Geology, Geochemistry & Geobiology. He studies how landscapes form and evolve, both on Earth and on other planets. His approach combines theory and numerical modeling, field and remote sensing observations, analysis of data from planetary missions, and laboratory experiments. His group’s research is organized around three themes: explaining prominent landscape patterns such as branching river networks; using natural experiments to study how climate shapes landscapes; and examining planetary landforms to learn about the evolution of other worlds.