Inclusive, ambitious research to meet the needs of a changing planet

Collaborative research communities supported by the Environmental Innovations Initiative are addressing issues related to climate action, stewardship of nature, and societal resilience.

gloved hands working with soil
This year, two research communities led by Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine received funding from the Environmental Innovations Initiative. (Image: iStock/microgen)

What do farmers need from academics to build a livelihood that’s sustainable, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint? How can anthropologists, wildlife ecologists, and veterinarians work in sync to identify—and solve—critical public and environmental health challenges?

Answering these questions and many others related to the environment requires interdisciplinary collaboration. To build teams, Penn’s Environmental Innovations Initiative (EII) has a funding mechanism that encourages cross-school, cross-departmental collaborations called “research communities.” This year, two research communities led by Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine received funding from the Initiative.

“We established the research communities to be something like research projects, but more open, collaborative, and public-facing,” says Kathleen Morrison, faculty co-lead of EII and the Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Professor in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Anthropology. “All of them address issues related to our mission of climate action, stewardship of nature, and societal resilience, but every group approaches the challenge of the climate emergency in a different way.”

Thomas Parsons, the Marie A. Moore Professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics and professor of swine production medicine at Penn Vet, co-leads one research community that received funding for a second time this year, the Penn Regenerative Ag Alliance, together with Mark Alan Hughes of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. The team includes additional faculty from Penn Vet and the Kleinman Center, as well as the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Arts & Sciences, and Penn Global.

jennifer punt with students in canine lab
Jenni Punt (center), a professor of immunology at Penn Vet, is leading the One Health@Penn research community. (Image: Eric Sucar)

And a second research community born of the Vet School, newly supported this year, is One Health@Penn, led by Penn Vet’s Jenni Punt, associate dean for One Health and a professor of immunology. Punt collaborated on the proposal with Penn Vet’s Julie C. Ellis, and Brittany Watson, as well as Hillary Nelson of the University’s Master of Public Health program.

“The timing of the research communities program was extraordinarily wonderful for us,” says Punt. “It allowed us to take ideas that we thought, ‘Oh it would be nice to do this,’ and move them toward becoming operational.”

Agriculture and the environment in harmony

Regenerative agriculture distinguishes itself by practices that don’t just avoid degradation of the environment, but in fact improve soil and ecosystem health.

When the Penn Regenerative Ag Alliance first received Initiative support in 2022, it coincided with the launch of the Penn Vet Center for Stewardship Agriculture and Food Security. The two entities, with overlapping membership, share a goal of building connections across campus around how agriculture can be part of the solution to climate change and environmental harms.

tom parsons
Thomas Parsons (right), the Marie A. Moore Professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics and professor of swine production medicine at Penn Vet, co-leads the research community, the Penn Regenerative Ag Alliance, with Mark Alan Hughes of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. (Image: Penn Vet)

Over the last year, Parsons and Hughes have gathered experts in soil health, such as Zhengxia Dou, from Penn Vet and Alain Plante, from Penn Arts & Sciences, to turn attention to how farms can reinvigorate degenerated soils. In work with Ellen Neises and her colleagues at Penn’s Weitzman School of Design, they’re also exploring the use of riparian buffers on farms, areas along streams or other waterways that are planted with trees, shrubs, and other plants to protect water quality and provide wildlife habitat.

They’re working with Penn Engineering’s Peter Psarras at the Clean Energy Conversions Lab to consider the role of farms in carbon capture, as well as Engineering’s Cherie Kagan and Rahul Mangharam, to collaborate on technological applications for regenerative agriculture. And they’ve engaged Tom Daniels and Nicholas Pevzner of Weitzman in discussions about how the renewable energy industry poses both a challenge and an opportunity to traditional farms.

Faculty and staff reported on ag-related work and its intersections at a public workshop held during Energy Week this past spring, featuring a keynote, faculty presentations, and student posters. “We created a lot of opportunity for interaction,” Parsons says. “All these different schools bring unique perspectives and expertise, so our aim is to try to synthesize those perspectives and have an impact.”

In the coming year, the alliance plans for a second workshop and other events, such as a monthly seminar series and podcast miniseries. They’re also working on opportunities to get researchers and students out into the field to see agricultural challenges and opportunities firsthand.

Working toward One Health solutions

Most in the veterinary field understand the One Health concept: that the health and well-being of humans, animals, and the environment are intrinsically connected. Yet this approach to scholarship has been slower to catch on in arenas outside veterinary medicine.

In the case of the One Health@Penn research community, support from the Initiative helped strengthen and formalize efforts that Punt and others at Penn had already begun to put in motion. Since joining the faculty in 2018, Punt has worked with Penn Vet dean Andrew Hoffman to develop a variety of cross-disciplinary connections, including rolling out new dual-degree educational programs and building on the strengths of existing ones, like the robust VMD-Ph.D. program. Working with Ellis, a wildlife ecologist and co-director of the Wildlife Futures Program at Penn Vet, Punt also helped organize a cross-University group that calls itself One Health in Action (OHiA) and includes Nelson from Penn Medicine as well as a variety of scholars across Penn Vet, including Stephen Cole; Erick Gagne; postdoc Sabrina Greening; Lisa Murphy; Laurel Redding; Caroline Sobotyk; Brittany Watson; and Elizabeth Woodward, who hail from diverse fields.

Within that group, a key goal emerged: to work toward creating a National Science Foundation–funded fellowship program for training scientists in interdisciplinary, One Health ways of thinking.

“As veterinarians, we are inherently interdisciplinary because not only do we need to understand the health of multiple species, but we always need to tend to the humans involved when we treat our animals,” Punt says. “We also need to be humble and know where our scholarly limits are and when we need to cross over and talk to wildlife ecologists, designers, architects, psychologists, and anthropologists.”

Since receiving EII support, which was matched by funding from the Vet School by the dean, the One Health@Penn team has been laying the foundation for those types of perspective-shifting conversations.

At the inaugural talk of the OHiA seminar series, held during Earth Week at Penn in April and supported by the research community, veterinary epidemiologist Craig Stephen spoke about how a reframing of One Health may be necessary to meaningfully address planetary health. Another speaker visited campus this fall as part of the series. The community has also convened a monthly One Health Research in Progress Series, focused on climate change and health for the 2023–24 year and featuring faculty from all 12 schools at Penn.

To “train the trainers” in climate change science, the research community is offering stipends to Nelson, Woodward, and Gagne to complete the Certificate in Climate Change program offered by Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies. These faculty will also create a Climate and One Health course, with assistance from two dual-degree students from Penn Vet, targeted for the 2024–25 academic year.

“Elizabeth, Erick, and Hillary are very creative as well as rigorous thinkers,” Punt says. “They want to make this course hands-on, really interdisciplinary, and involve real problem-solving.”

‘Spreading its wings’

Through EII, all of the research communities have had opportunities to not only develop and meet with their own groups, but also forge connections across communities, and even outside Penn. Representatives from the Regenerative Ag Alliance and One Health@Penn groups have engaged in efforts to build new graduate certificates in environment- and climate-related fields, and have met with teams from other higher-ed institutions to discuss similar cross-disciplinary research efforts.

regenerative alliance at fisher fine arts library
Members of an EII research community and others joined together at the Regenerative Ag Alliance Workshop, held in the Kleinman Energy Forum during Penn’s Energy Week in March. (Image: Ashley Hinton/Penn Vet)

Part of EII’s mission is to “catalyze solutions to significant real-world challenges,” and the research communities are a key part of achieving that goal.

“There’s a lot of foundational work to figure out what teams are out there, what people are doing, and to figure out what problems are out there that our expertise can help in solving,” Punt says.

“This is Penn Vet spreading its wings. It’s important in a visionary way.”