Society, Water, and Climate

By Guest Blogger: Andrea Brunelle, Chair, Department of Geography

The University of Utah currently has faculty members conducting research in the areas of society, water and climate; however, our faculty themselves identified this area as a research focus where some strategic hires could transform our productivity.
With support from the university administration we identified this nexus of research areas as an opportunity for the development of a research cluster. Enhancing our strength in this area at the University of Utah will allow us to contribute to solving important issues facing the Western US and many other regions around the world. Growing stronger in this area also means that we will broaden our ability to train undergraduates and graduates to lead society towards sustainable water solutions in a changing world.

Society, Climate, WaterWater is the key limiting resource for human development and for ecological and agricultural productivity in the Western US, and in many parts of the world. Climate change, water availability, and air quality are closely linked. Climate change will bring increased temperatures combined with likely increases in the severity, frequency, and duration of weather extremes, such as droughts and floods. Changes in water availability due to climate change will be further complicated by use of water for agriculture, changes in land use, and population growth. Elevated temperatures can also increase the production and concentration of photochemical oxidants, which has serious implications for human health. Furthermore, increased air pollution can affect the longevity of snowpack which affects water storage and resources. Climate change will have important ecological impacts, including changes in species distribution and ecosystem function, insect disturbance, and wildfire activity. Emissions from wildfires adversely impact air quality in downwind locations. In many regions of the world, issues centered on climate change and water availability will profoundly shape society in the next century. Addressing these issues requires a focused, transdisciplinary effort from scientists with expertise in society, water and climate.

Eight departments (Geology & Geophysics, Geography, Economics, Political Science, Atmospheric Sciences, Anthropology, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Biology) from four colleges (College of Social and Behavioral Science, College of Science, College of Mines and Earth Science, and College of Engineering) are collaborating on these hires.

Nearly 400 applicants applied for the five advertised positions. Twelve on-campus interviews are currently underway. After our first round of colleagues are hired we plan to hold a retreat with folks from across campus to map our path forward with regards to developing a roadmap for taking advantage of new funding opportunities and on campus collaborative efforts. We will follow the lead of the Families and Health Cluster and bring in leaders in the field to nucleate the existing and new researchers on campus around the planned initiatives.

More information about the cluster and positions can be found at:
Sustainability Showcase

Families and Health Transformative Cluster

By Guest Blogger: Cynthia Berg, Dean, College of Social & Behavioral Sciences

The central idea of the Families and Health Research cluster is that the family system can be used as a vehicle to improve the health and health care of individuals across the full life-span (from infancy into late adulthood). An interdisciplinary group of scholars began to see that this idea was right for the University of Utah as it built on the strengths in multiple colleges (Social and Behavioral Science, Humanities, Health, Medicine) and the Huntsman Cancer Institute. In addition, it was an ideal fit with the local context in Utah, where families are large and multigenerational and valued as important resources for health and well-being.

GroupThe investigators in this group were successful in doing NIH funded research on family issues from understanding genetic and environmental risk factors for chronic disease within the Utah Population Data Base to state of the art observational methods for understanding family processes in the development of disease and in managing chronic illnesses. But there was a need for greater expertise in complex methodologies to capture the intricacies of family members, to develop interventions to use the full potential of the family, to disseminate and implement such interventions, and to more fully capture the cultural and demographic diversity of Utah families.

After the proposal was awarded (May 30th), this group quickly assembled in the summer months to prioritize hires, finalize job advertisements, and secure departmental partners. The group kicked off the fall semester with a brown bag attended by nearly 100 faculty members, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students where the benefit of a multi-systems approach to the study of families and health was introduced.

Dr. Rena RepettiThis energy was carried forward in October, where the group held a kick-off conference with invited speaker Dr. Rena Repetti, a Clinical Health Psychologist from UCLA. She demonstrated how an intense look at the everyday life of families can yield insights as to how families facilitate health. The event was followed by a research mixer where faculty and graduate students rapidly presented their work on aging, family processes, and coping with chronic illness. The mixer event was an important catalyst for scholars to chart out common interests and brainstorm about research ideas for upcoming proposals to NIH. Further, a graduate student interest group has formed to share ideas and a BLOCK-U proposal has been approved for undergraduates in the fall of 2015.

In December our first candidates come in for interviews and we are excited for the possibilities of these faculty hires. The energy, excitement, and motivation of this group confirms that this is a cluster that will be transformative. Members of this group understand at both a professional and personal level the power of the family in maintaining positive health and adapting to chronic illness (see

Making Connections with Our Students

Launching the academic year brings many occasions to talk with colleagues around campus about their hopes and plans for the year ahead. A personal high point of the past couple weeks was delivering the keynote for our campus’ annual Teaching Retreat, hosted by the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. More than 200 energetic, enthusiastic teacher-scholars participated in the day-long event. When I asked participants about teachers in their lives who had a significant influence on their learning, common themes emerged: effective teachers developed communities of learners; took a personal interest in the success of students; created engaged, active learning environments that brought academic material to life; and helped students develop a true sense of belonging in the university.

A survey of 30,000 college graduates, conducted by Gallup in partnership with Purdue University and Lumina Foundation, echoes the reports of our retreat participants. Results revealed that graduates who had at least one professor who cared about them and served as a mentor and/or participated in a capstone experience were significantly more likely to be engaged at work and thriving in well-being.

As we start a new year, it’s the right time to think about how successful we could be if we built the type of relationships that strengthen learning and help students feel a deep sense of belonging on campus. As we welcome roughly 3,300 new freshmen, our current data predict that 6 of 10 are likely to complete the baccalaureate within six years, 7 of 10 within eight years of starting college. What would be possible if every new freshman and new transfer student found at least one significant educational connection at the U, whether in a great class with a great professor, in a learning community, in a research experience, or in a student organization? We could, quite literally, improve the odds of success for our undergraduates.

There are many sources of assistance if you would like to learn more about involving undergraduates in your research, creating a capstone experience, enhancing your teaching, or other strategies to promote student success (Undergraduate Studies). As we launch the new year, thank you for joining in the effort to ensure that every undergraduate connects with the university, finds at least one mentor, and has access to the experiences that matter for their success.

2014-08-18 Teachers Retreat

SVP Ruth Watkins speaks at the Annual Teaching Symposium