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$27.5 Million Collection of Grants Focuses on Sustainability and Equity

Directing research efforts toward projects that address important issues has resulted in several high-profile grant awards and recognition for Professor Maya Trotz of the University of South Florida College of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

In the past year, Trotz and her team of investigators have received $27.5 million in funding from five awards to investigate matters related to engineering where it intersects with environmental and social equity interests.

“The common goal of my various research projects is to bring diverse groups together and broaden participation in decision making around built infrastructures like those that provide us with safe water to drink and clean water to support our various aquatic ecosystems,” says Trotz. 

The largest grant is for $20 million over five years from the National Science Foundation to fund a project titled “Large-scale CoPe: Reducing Climate Risks with Equitable Nature-based Solutions: Engaging Communities on Reef-Lined Coasts.” The grant focuses on building partnerships with local community organizations in Belize, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to promote sustainable and equitable methods to protect and restore mangroves and coral reefs to reduce impacts from climate change like coastal erosion due to storm surge.

The concept of equitable engineering, which among many things seeks to improve access to the benefits of infrastructure for frontline communities while mitigating the harm of many of our current practices, is behind another NSF grant titled “Convergence Accelerator Track E: The BlueGreen Action Platform, connecting communities upstream and downstream to improve nitrogen management.” Branded as BlueGAP, this grant is funded for $5 million over 2 years and aims to develop solutions to nitrogen pollution in watershed areas through projects in Florida, Iowa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

BlueGAP emerged from an initial $750,000 NSF grant, “Convergence Accelerator Track E: Linking the Green Economy to the Blue Economy at the Coast” to examine a broader range of environmental issues that could benefit from developing connectivity between coastal communities where tourism and industry drive the local economy, and nearby, often upstream inland areas where industrial and agricultural interests dominate.

“Our blue-green research efforts combine storytelling and data to make it easier for people to see how nitrogen pollution affects their health and livelihoods, and how to take actions that improve how nitrogen is managed whether at local, regional, national or international scales,” says Trotz, who earned her PhD in environmental engineering at Stanford University. She adds that successfully working with local communities requires more than technical expertise.

“Our team is highly interdisciplinary, committed to working with frontline communities who bear the brunt of negative impacts from nitrogen pollution, and excited to bring an out of the box people-centered solution to the global nitrogen management challenge.”

Among the experiences Trotz can call upon to connect quantifiable science with local narratives is her earning a minor in theater arts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to go with her bachelor of science in chemical engineering.  

Engineering social justice is a concept that considers how infrastructure and other types of development as well as industrial activity affect the communities where they are located. 

It recognizes the role engineers can play in creating and mitigating harm to Black and other People of Color communities by raising awareness of the issue among professionals and making it part of their training. Two grants awarded to Trotz aim to promote greater social justice in engineering with funding over the next four years.

One NSF award, for $1.5 million focuses on developing civil and environmental engineering  curriculum that provides real world contexts to investigate environmental justice, e.g. how air and water pollution disproportionately affect frontline communities, and contribute engineering solutions that are more equitable. Partners include UC Berkeley, the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa, Inc. and a community council comprised of East Tampa residents.  While the initial foci is on civil and environmental engineering, this grant has the potential to guide all ABET accredited engineering programs that must train students who can “recognize  ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts.”

The second, “ADVANCE Partnership: Strategic Partnership for Alignment of Community Engagement in STEM (SPACES),” is an NSF Equity for Excellence in STEM award for $250,000. The EES awards provide a means to develop the STEM workforce by connecting with people underrepresented in the technology-based trades and industries, such as racial minorities, women, and people with disabilities. 

Trotz says the necessity of broadening the scope of participation in solving problems is clear. 

“Creating equity and inclusivity in engineering opens limitless possibilities for a healthier and happier world. It is the overarching engineering challenge of our time that pushes us to reimagine an engineering design process and subsequent products, solutions, and infrastructures where the quality of air, water, soil etc. is not compromised for anyone and environmental injustices are eliminated.”

The five grants recently awarded reflect the prodigious amount of research Trotz has been involved in since arriving at USF in 2004. While her publications and research span issues that range from equity to sustainability, there is connectivity running throughout her work.

Trotz cites the College of Engineering’s commitment to supporting interdisciplinary approaches to conducting research as integral to her work.

“I could not achieve my goals without students and colleagues like Dr. James Mihelcic, who is committed to working on complex problems through interdisciplinary and community engaged approaches.” 

Trotz adds that conducting meaningful research involving disparate disciplines is encouraged and supported at USF.   

“USF’s investment in interdisciplinary research and education under Dr. Delcie Durham’s leadership at the graduate school over a decade ago stands out as a pivotal moment for my work, laying the foundation for the strong partnerships I now have with colleagues like Dr. Rebecca Zarger in anthropology. Mr. Bernard Batson, the College of Engineering’s Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion contributes significantly to broadening participation efforts that are integrated into the grants I lead.” 

Support from institutions across the university that facilitate research projects, whether they are focused on global issues or problems closer to the Tampa campus, has also been important to Trotz’ research.

“USF World,  USF’s Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships, and the Institute on Black Life at USF, provide resources that help to build my research partnerships both locally and internationally. USF is a Carnegie classified community engaged university and when we first sought this designation many of the projects emphasized were those in East Tampa, an historic African American community. Community leaders like Mrs. Evangeline Best, Mrs. Lena Young Green, Ms. Connie Burton and Mr. Walter Smith have been instrumental in guiding my engagement over the years. For these new grants with multiple institutions and other partners USF Libraries will contribute to data management and USF Technology Transfer Office (TTO) will help us address intellectual property.”

Trotz is currently also the director and principal investigator for the Strong Coasts Collaborative National Research Traineeship for graduate students at USF and the University of the Virgin Islands to address food, energy, and water systems with and within coastal communities. She credits an Elates at DrexelÒ Leadership program, Strong Coasts, especially the trainees and their bold interdisciplinary work, Fragments of Hope Ltd in Belize, a Community Based organization focused on coral reef repopulation, and the USF Black Faculty and Staff Steering Committee, for providing the tools, motivation, and sounding board for these recent awards.  

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