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Easy Being Green: CUER to Raise Awareness, Solve Environmental Issues



Rod Hay, associate dean, College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, professor of earth sciences, and director, CUER; photo by Gary Kuwahara

Easy Being Green: CUER to Raise Awareness, Solve Environmental Issues

Many people don’t consider the natural environment anymore, but when you see a raccoon peeking out of a storm drain, or a possum walking down your neighbor’s fence, you know it’s there.
- Rod Hay, director, CUER

When Rod Hay, professor of earth sciences, commutes to CSU Dominguez Hills each day from his home in Long Beach, the environmental issues of the South Bay often stare him in the face, taking the form of the smog layer that often sits over Los Angeles. But, instead of just getting him down, what Hay sees is an opportunity to improve and inform, and that’s where he hopes a new collaborative effort for ongoing research at CSUDH can come in.

Even before he came to campus a decade ago, Hay worked on using geographic information systems to build multi-dimensional maps that have helped communities and countries all over the world solve some of their environmental problems. And he is not the only professor on campus embedded in environmentally focused research.

Connie Vadheim, adjunct professor of biology, has involved students in bringing native plant species back to the South Bay. Brendan McNulty, professor of earth sciences, has received grant funding to research the ill effects of MTBE – an additive to gasoline – on groundwater. There are others, as well, but they have always worked independently. That’s about to change.

In January, CSUDH received $192,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency to establish the Center for Urban Environmental Research (CUER) on campus. The earmark funding served as the jumpstart these professors needed to develop an umbrella center under which they will meet, work together, and foster their environmental research collaboratively. The Center also plans to develop a new interdisciplinary master’s degree in urban environmental science as well as an educational pipeline to introduce K-12 students to environmental and science-based careers. What will make CUER stand out is not just its focus on environmental research and outreach, but in the urban landscape where such programs are critically needed.

“We are starting with our own campus and moving outward,” says Hay.  “We have initiated a native species campaign and we were just accepted to membership on the campus planning committee. When campus issues arise on where to build and what materials to use, we want to be there.”  There is a new science building on the drawing boards and Hay wants it to be “green.”  Although this may be more expensive initially, in the long run it will be more efficient with reduced energy costs and a drainage system that effectively waters surrounding native vegetation. 

“We’ve been talking about and doing these things on campus for years, but we needed some funding to kick-start the project. The earmark is exactly that. It gives us the momentum to move forward and build on all of these other things. By bringing all of these professors together, the synergy will allow us to take advantage of each other’s skills,” says Hay, who will serve as the Center’s director.

Specifically, the EPA monies will be used to repair and upgrade the campus greenhouse, which is located behind the NSM building, and upgrade the geographic information laboratory. Additional grants are in development and have been submitted to appeal for funds for further facility upgrades and faculty release time to allow professors to lighten their teaching load so they can work on all three of CUER’s goals.

Developed as an interdisciplinary center, the core of professors helping to get CUER off the ground come from biology and earth sciences. Along with Hay, Vadheim, and McNulty, John Roberts, professor of biology, has researched what would be needed to launch the master’s program. John Thomlinson, professor of biology and chair, Biology Department, is an ecologist by training and John Keyantash, assistant professor of earth sciences, has advanced degrees in related fields and has spent time putting together the educational pipeline aspect of the Center. Hay hopes to see disciplines as varied as sociology and business involved in the Center as well.

The master’s degree will take on a similar interdisciplinary form, and while it is at least two years from fruition, the program would provide a unique opportunity for students within the CSU because of its focus on urban environmental science – traditionally, environmental science programs do not have such a focus and because of CSUDH’s location, the program would provide an opportunity for students to get their hands dirty in the communities in which they live.

In terms of the educational pipeline prong of the Center, there have been similar programs developed on campus that have brought K-12 teachers to campus during summers to gain tools on teaching science topics in their own classrooms. The primary reason for such programs: Research has shown fewer and fewer K-12 children are choosing science professions when entering college, and Hay says we’d all benefit from reversing that trend.

“The reality is that knowing about and how to monitor things in our natural world has got to be one of the most pressing issues we face today,” he says. “It’s very obvious we’re changing the environment we live in and we need educated scientists to see the impacts of those changes as well as suggest what we can do about it.”

Vadheim has a similar view on why the CUER is so important and what it can contribute. Specifically, she thinks water issues will play out more and more in Southern California and getting scientists collaboratively involved is crucial.

“I think we, as scientists with different perspectives, can play a big role in solving the water challenges of the future. They are tremendous challenges, and now is the key time to be finding solutions,” she says.

Vadheim has already worked feverishly on water projects in the South Bay. With the help of graduate students, she has preserved and planted native willows and bush sunflowers to help in remediation at the Madrona Marsh Nature Preserve in Torrance. These plants siphon off contaminants in the soil through their root systems. With the help of students, Vadheim also recently planted a football field-long swath of native plants alongside the new Parking Lot 7 on campus, grown from seeds and cuttings in the campus greenhouse. She says her focus on native plant species is crucial for the South Bay because they are not as water-dependent and thus better for the arid Los Angeles environment.

Her research and efforts are indicative of how involved CSUDH professors already are in environmental work, work that also benefits the surrounding communities, and Hay hopes that the CUER’s biggest payoff will be in the University's role of helping surrounding communities make smart environmental decisions.

“What we really hope to do with the CUER is provide a resource to the communities. Our research won’t just be for our benefit. We can provide expertise to help cities understand the environmental issues they face, for example, when they’re considering a new housing development,” says Hay. “It’s not like we’re starting this type of work today. We’ve been doing it for years, but hopefully, down the road, we’ll sit on planning boards and be deeply involved in helping South Bay cities make the right decisions for their communities for years to come.

“In the rush to create the California dream, we have all too often left the environment behind," he continues. "Many people don’t consider the natural environment anymore, but when you see a raccoon peeking out of a storm drain, or a possum walking down your neighbor’s fence, you know it’s there.”

- Ryan Brandt


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Last updated Tuesday, May 16, 2006, 10:51 a.m., by Joanie Harmon