University of Vermont

School of Engineering

$6.7M grant awarded for complex systems thinking and modeling for ecosystem analysis

Release Date: 10-01-2007

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Phone: 802-656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Pollution in Lake Champlain has been attacked by researchers and citizens for decades. But many problems remain and are poorly understood — like the effects of excess phosphorus — despite intensive study and data collection.

Now, a $6.7 million grant to the Vermont EPSCoR program at the University of Vermont, from the National Science Foundation, promises a novel way forward for understanding the lake's watershed — while at the same time giving Vermont strength in an advanced new form of analysis called "complex systems computation."

Senator Patrick Leahy provided key leadership for securing the 3-year grant, "Complex Systems Modeling for Environmental Problem Solving."

Leahy and UVM president Daniel Mark Fogel announced the grant on Friday September 28th in the Marble Court of UVM's Fleming Museum.

"We have a responsibility to ensure Lake Champlain is as clean and healthy as possible today, and for future generations," Leahy said. "That takes not only dollars but a plan on how to use these investments as efficiently and effectively as we can.

"Having secured $100 million in federal assistance over the years for the protection of the lake, I welcome the progress we have made. More needs to be done, and the cutting-edge modeling we are announcing today will give us an even better understanding of how to address threats to our lake and preserve its future," he said.

"We salute Senator Leahy's longstanding leadership for the well-being of Lake Champlain and commitment to keeping Vermont at the front edge of advanced environmental technologies," said UVM president Daniel Mark Fogel. "Thanks to his vision and effort, this important grant will allow UVM, and all the partners in the Vermont EPSCoR program, to reach new heights in science and engineering research, workforce development throughout the state, and research innovations for small businesses."

Science and engineering research

The first part of the project will not take the conventional approach of collecting additional data on the lake.

Instead, a new EPSCoR research team, drawing together scientists and engineers from numerous departments across UVM as well as other colleges in Vermont, will use the rich data sets already in existence and apply powerful modeling tools to numerous parts of this data at the same time. High-speed computers at UVM's Advanced Computing Center, running self-learning programs that evolve as they work, will reveal hidden patterns that emerge from the complex interaction between water, organisms, pollution, and other forces within the watershed.

The long-term goal of the project, in alignment with the new State Science and Technology Plan, is to develop these computational skills so that complex systems approaches can be applied to other important issues in Vermont, from stopping groundwater pollution to building environmental technologies.

"Complex systems are far more than the sum of their parts," said Judith Van Houten, UVM professor of biology and state director of Vermont EPSCoR, "Standard modeling cannot address all the interactions" which is part of the reason why many phenomena — like weather and brain development and species extinctions — are so difficult to predict despite increasing amounts of information.

"Complex and complicated mean two very different things," Van Houten said.

For example, a watch is complicated, but a watershed is complex. Remove one gear from the thousand in the watch and it, predictably, stops working. Pollute one river and the whole watershed is likely to shift and change in a thousand ways, but nobody can be quite sure if or when or where a toxic algae bloom will appear in the lake.

The models that emerge from complex systems analysis will allow researchers and policymakers to get a much clearer answer to these kinds of questions — and a better sense of what various changes and policies are likely to yield.

These new computational approaches do more than calculate quickly. They take into account the numerous scales of time and space within a watershed from molecular interactions to the global atmosphere; the "nonlinear" or chaotic properties that can make a small change create a huge effect; and the ways in which simple interactions give rise to complex emergent properties.

Workforce development

The grant will also allow the creation of a new education and workforce development effort, the Streams Project. It will bring together high school students and their teachers with undergraduates and professors on a long-term study, sampling and analyzing water from streams throughout the Lake Champlain watershed. The Streams Project will be led by faculty from Saint Michael's and Middlebury Colleges and have participation from many other colleges in Vermont.

The project will use molecular biology to identify not just the bacteria in the streams, but the sources of the bacteria, "be they cows or dogs or humans," said Van Houten. Additional information will be gathered from total phosphorous analysis and a survey of the insects and other macroinvertebrates living in the streams.

"But we'll go beyond sampling," said Van Houten, "and apply complex systems computation and models to the data collected." This will provide new insights into the well-being of many streams in the region, while at the same time engaging students in science, mathematics and engineering topics, building their interest in careers in these fields.

Small business innovation

The grant will also allow EPSCoR to add two new initiatives to its highly successful Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program that supports research in the private sector.

The first will provide support to businesses in the earliest steps (Phase 0) of the SBIR program, including the use of UVM research laboratories and other facilities to collect the data they need to move on to advanced phases of the program (Phases I and II).

The second program takes the worried question "what if this doesn't work?" that often limits research to safe and well-established lines of inquiry — and turns it on its head. The new program will create an award for Vermont companies and entrepreneurs who optimistically ask, "what if this works?" about very high-risk and very high-impact research ideas.

These Innovation Fund, or "IF," awards, about $10,000 each, will go to four long-shot ideas that, history shows, are the necessary starting point for new technology breakthroughs. And these new technologies, numerous government reports and the recent America Competes Act show, are critical to American economic competitiveness.


The Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) was founded in 1985 and works to improve the research competitiveness of Vermont scientists and engineers as well as bring National Science Foundation resources to the service of the whole state. There are EPSCoR programs in 26 smaller and rural states, run by the NSF, Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.

More information is available at:

Professor Judith Van Houten is the Director of Vermont EPSCoR,, 802-656-0452.