University of Michigan: New U-M initiative invests $4.5 million in environmental, social justice research

The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan continues its tradition of groundbreaking research with the investment of nearly $4.5 million in grant funding for four new innovative faculty research projects.

The winning proposals address climate change, the carceral state, systemic racism, and the impact of microplastics on the environment.

The grants are part of a new program known as the Meet the Moment Research Initiative, which focuses on faculty research and scholarship across the liberal arts that address today’s most pressing societal issues. These projects showcase the breadth and depth of LSA’s research capabilities and represent a monumental investment in an internal research competition by a liberal arts college.

“We are thrilled to announce the first round of winners of our new Meet the Moment Research Initiative,” said LSA Dean Anne Curzan. “The liberal arts and sciences inform so much of how and why we navigate our own lives—socially, economically and politically—in the past and present, and help explain the mysteries of the natural world.

“There are many challenges our society is facing right now that have long-term effects for generations to come. With this research initiative, we can address these issues in a way that will encourage and empower people to make positive, purposeful change.”

The project teams are led by LSA faculty and will also include undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, staff and other colleagues across the humanities and social and natural sciences, as well as community members, highlighting the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the program.

Proposals for the Meet the Moment Research Initiative fall into two grant categories: Winning proposals in the “Change the World” category each receive up to $2 million to be used over a five-year period; and winning proposals in the “Vital Impact” category each receive up to $250,000 for a two-year research project. All four projects will begin between July 1 and Sept. 1, 2022.

The four inaugural projects are:

Change the World Projects (awards up to $2 million each):
Confronting the Carceral State: Criminalization, Confinement and Control examines the historical and current state of the U.S. carceral system, including mass incarceration, police brutality, wrongful convictions, racial criminalization and immigrant detention. The team will partner with community organizations and impacted individuals to center the voices and lived experiences of incarcerated people and criminalized communities, bring transparency and democratic accountability to law enforcement, and “change the narrative” around the carceral state in an effort to dismantle systemic racism and promote social justice.

Project Team: Heather Ann Thompson, Christian Davenport, Matthew Lassiter, Kentaro Toyama, Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, Melissa Borja, Ruby Tapia, William Lopez

Total Award: $1,999,834

Measuring, Modeling and Mapping Microplastics in the Atmosphere of Michigan will investigate how microplastics pollution in the atmosphere has impacted residents in Michigan, and how racial, economic and geographic disparities have played a role in exposure levels. The research will help inform how to better address this issue and promote environmental justice.

Project Team: Anne McNeil, Andrew Ault, Ambuj Tewari, Paul Zimmerman, Allison Steiner, Mary Starr

Total Award: $2,000,000

Vital Impact Projects (awards up to $250,000 each):
Meeting the Mnomen: Restoration of wild rice populations for environmental and social justice will evaluate water, sediment and biodiversity by examining the Mnomen plant at U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens’ Willow Pond. The project will be an inclusive partnership with Michigan’s Tribal communities, as the Mnomen is an at-risk native plant and traditional food for the Anishinaabek community.

Project Team: Selena Smith, Kerstin Barndt, Nathan Sheldon, Tony Kolenic, David Michener, Michael Kost, Roger LaBine

Total Award: $249,572

Balancing water needs amidst climate change: Mono Lake as a case study for communities and watersheds in the U.S. will examine how to improve communication about the effect of climate change on municipal water supplies. The team will study California’s Mono Lake, one of Los Angeles’ main water supplies by combining hydrology and geochemistry research with community engagement to help make projections of Mono Lake’s future water levels and translate those results into everyday language for the general public.

Project Team: Naomi Levin, Benjamin Passey, Andrew Gronewold, Arya Harp