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April 1, 2021

Sustainability. It’s in danger of being a buzzword. OK, fair enough, it is a buzzword. But can we agree it’s a buzzword that matters, one with critical consequence for our collective future? And it’s a word that encapsulates many of the research strengths of the University of Vermont, the same priority on healthy environment and healthy communities described in the 2020 Amplifying Our Impact strategic document. In this story, we offer a window on a sliver of that work—from managing the public good of urban trees to keeping Vermonters safe in the pandemic—as our faculty create new knowledge and build new practices to help societies thrive today and for generations to come.

Chenab River, part of the Indus River Basin

The Weight of Water

Water scarcity has been a source of regional conflict and war throughout human history. As the world’s fresh water becomes increasingly scarce due to climate change, cooperation among countries, regions, and villages sharing water resources across borders will be critical to ensuring an equitable distribution of this fundamental resource.

UVM’s Asim Zia has made it his mission to address this global challenge through environmental diplomacy and grassroots organizing. Last year, Zia was awarded a Fulbright Global Scholar Award from the U.S. Department of State to spearhead a project to identify scientific, technological, and policy solutions for ensuring clean water across three transboundary river basins—the Indus, Jordan, and Amazon—which collectively sustain more than 237 million people in the bordering countries.

“Fresh water is critical for health, the production of food, and energy,” says Zia, professor of public policy in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics and a fellow in the Gund Institute for Environment. “In these large-scale rivers, the actions of one upstream partner can have a significant effect on downstream populations. Because water is a limited resource, power differentials and transboundary conflict can lead to famines, migrations, and water wars.”

Climate-induced droughts and floods, which have become increasingly common in the Indus, Jordan, and Amazon river basins, further intensify the fight for clean water. Using an action-research approach, Zia is building a network of community partners, scientific institutions, and governments from across these basins to set up and agree upon principles of ecological cooperation.

When the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, Zia’s Fulbright support will take him to Pakistan, Israel, and Ecuador, working at the local, national, and international policy levels to improve border relations and water-use practices, as well as within communities to inspire grassroots social change.

One of the main findings from Zia’s previous research was that although these types of environmental diplomacy meetings can be fraught with identity politics and strife, people tend to come together around the issue of water quality. “It was really one of those ah-ha moments,” says Zia. “Even in these highly conflicted areas, people are willing to talk to one another when it’s about water quality.”

Professor Laurent Hébert-Dufresne at board

Modeling A Pandemic's Spread

The answer might be twenty-three. “But it’s probably not,” says Laurent Hébert-Dufresne (above)—professor of computer science and an expert on the mathematical modeling of epidemics. The question is: how many people in a group is too large during the COVID-19 pandemic? Of course, any gathering, even of two people, presents some risk of spread. But researchers and policymakers have pondered over the last year where the tipping point is—ten? Twenty-five?—between keeping the disease in check and having it spread like a housefire.

In a new study, Hébert-Dufresne and his colleagues clarify that these kinds of thresholds are real and powerful but he’s impatient with the search for a simple-minded single number. Instead, he wants people to understand why it’s been so important, during the COVID-19 epidemic, to close schools, shut restaurants, cancel concerts, and empty cruise ships.

“A lot of people wonder if it’s necessary, if it’s reasonable,” he says, “and the answer is yes.”

Not all diseases are like this, but COVID-19 appears to “live at the mesoscale,” Hébert-Dufresne says—the scale of universities, hospitals, churches, and other medium-sized gatherings of people. Therefore, attacking it at this scale is a more powerful and efficient way to stop the spread than solely relying on individuals to wear masks and keep their distance.

Standard models assume that diseases simply move by diffusion through a pattern of random mixing. One-person-to-the-next-interactions, of course, at a basic level, are how the virus spreads. But Hébert-Dufresne’s new study, in Physical Review Letters, shows that more sophisticated models, that have “higher-order structures” built in, can identify how hotspots can form, say, within one school. In short, real lives are not a web of random contacts but are organized around social institutions.

When an epidemic localizes around one of these kinds of structures, it could be that the odds of catching the virus “on the street,” Hébert-Dufresne says, would be 1 in 10,000, but at a Pearl Jam concert might jump to 1 in 10. “So it makes sense to focus our interventions on these larger structures,” he says, at least as much as on individual behaviors, like masks and hand-washing. And with a vigorous effort to limit large gatherings, the “math makes it clear,” he says, that, at certain moments, an epidemic “can suddenly collapse.”

“We need a healthy society to be sustainable,” Hébert-Dufresne says. “My work over the last year has ranged from COVID, to hate speech, to how farmers adopt innovations to face climate change—all efforts to understand and model how things spread. A lot of our problems right now boil down to the fact that we don’t understand flows—of information, disease, ideas.”

People stand in pose in yoga class

Better Ways to Manage Pain

Dr. Jon Porter describes the people under his care as heroes: they fight daily battles against debilitating backache, arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic headaches, and other issues, braving unrelenting pain as they manage their lives. For years, these individuals fought their pain with traditional medical weapons—opioid medications, steroid injections, surgeries—bringing short-term relief and, for some, addiction, depression, and anguish. Still, Porter says, they persevere in quests for respite, dignity, and joy.

Porter, medical director of the UVM Medical Center Comprehensive Pain Program, knows that yoga, nutrition, mindfulness, massage, and acupuncture can help people manage pain more effectively than traditional approaches. Paying for these therapies is tricky though. For health insurance providers, covering the costs of surgeries, shots, and pills comes easier.

To change this paradigm, Porter and a team of UVM researchers gather qualitative data from people participating in thirteen weeks of evidence-based integrative therapies paid for by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont. The program aims to support participants’ self-efficacy and provide tools for coping with pain, while measuring health improvements and impacts on health-care spending.

“We want to demonstrate to society the value of this novel approach to pain,” Porter says. “Blue Cross wants to know if it works. They want their subscribers to be healthier and to reduce costs.”

Study participants attend group meetings and receive therapies at a clinic in South Burlington. The clinic includes a studio for gentle movement, teaching kitchen for culinary medicine classes, and rooms for massage, acupuncture, Reiki, physical therapy, and substance abuse counseling.

Preliminary data show significant changes in key areas: Participants report reduced pain, improved physical function, better sleep, and fewer visits to primary care and emergency departments for pain relief.

“The results show a statistically significant improvement in patient outcomes,” says Adam Atherly, director of UVM’s Center for Health Services Research at the Larner College of Medicine. He collaborates with Porter and Janet Kahn, a research assistant professor at Larner and massage therapist at CPP, on the study.

“The research asks, ‘Does this program work at UVM Medical Center?’ Early evidence shows that it does. People are getting better,” Atherly says. “Blue Cross has been looking at the claims data, and they see it’s working. As the payer, they are satisfied that it’s a reasonable investment. The next question is, ‘Can it be replicated?’”

“We’re helping individuals feel more hopeful and confident in working with their pain. The cost savings will be huge, and cumulative,” says Porter. “If we can help someone in their thirties or forties find ways to deal with their pain, it will help them for decades.”

Fisherman casts in ocean at sunset

Improving Livelihoods and Lives

When it comes to improving livelihoods, successful solutions often require looking generations into the future. But for scholars and researchers who work with subsistence communities—where economies are driven by basic needs like food, water, and shelter rather than the market—successful solutions also require a sustained relationship with the community, says Srinivas Venugopal, assistant professor in the Grossman School of Business.

“We have come to realize that in working with local communities in subsistence marketplaces, our allegiance, and indeed our accountability, lies not just with our discipline but also the local communities we operate in,” he writes in a paper published by the Journal of Consumer Affairs.

Venugopal’s research on the nature of consumption and entrepreneurship in these communities has taken him the world over, most recently to a small fishing village in Chennai, in South India, where the effects of climate change have disrupted traditional fishing livelihoods and techniques passed through generations. To design and evaluate a successful intervention, he employed what he calls a community-centric approach; “the prime directive of [which] is ‘do no harm,’” he writes.

In the fishing village, an apparent entrepreneurial solution to restore the declining revenues among fishermen brought on by climate change might be to invest in power boats or improved technology to track and catch more fish. But this traditional discipline-centric approach would eventually cause greater harm to the community overtime through overfishing and continued ecological disruption in the sea.

Venugopal’s community-centric approach instead tapped into a community action research team in the region with pre-established trust and credibility among local fishermen. Using on-the-ground connections to consult with fishermen, the research incorporated their existing techniques—like wading into estuaries on foot, or the effectiveness of small fiber glass boats versus commercial boats.

Ultimately, it’s an approach that yields a wider net for exploring practical social interventions to improve and honor the practice. And over time, the sustained relationships will provide continued insight into the issue and facilitate a constant feedback loop in search of viable solutions.

“There’s nothing that one person can do from the outside; it has to be done from the inside, in a sustainable way,” Venugopal says. “They are the agents of change, already engaged in the fight. How can partners catalyze it?”

Dr. Jan Carney

When Public Health Matters Most

In no other year has the value of public health expertise been more obvious, or lauded, than during the COVID-19 pandemic, and at UVM, that is embodied in Dr. Jan Carney, above.

A former Vermont Commissioner of Health, Carney has been a stalwart advocate throughout her career, with a long record for launching critical initiatives that improve community health. During her twenty-two years at UVM, Carney’s contributions have extended far beyond her role as associate dean for public health and health policy at the Larner College of Medicine. In addition to directing hundreds of medical-student-run public health projects, her efforts have yielded the Tobacco-Free Campus Policy, an online Master of Public Health degree, and suite of graduate-level and certificate-based public health programs, among other changes.

When COVID-19 hit, Carney’s rise to the challenge shone an even brighter light on UVM as a trusted community source for medical information. Not only did she guide UVM’s policies and help craft the Return to Campus plan, but she also implemented educational and research activities designed to help people get the information and services they need most.

With support from UVM Continuing and Distance Education, Carney brought together campus experts for free virtual community education webinars on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, prevention practices, and mental health and school strategies. To help social service agencies identify funding for community health and social needs, she launched an unprecedented statewide survey in partnership with United Ways of Vermont that also served as second-year medical students’ required public health projects. The results provide insight into the unique needs of rural versus urban communities, and issues like food access, financial stress, medical, and social needs.

Aerial image of urban park

Urban Arbor

Philadelphia, like every city, knows where its roads go. Its government has maps of streets, sewage treatment plants, electrical substations, and storm drains. “Urban areas have long focused on this kind of ‘gray infrastructure,’” says Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, director of the UVM Spatial Analysis Lab.

But how well do cities know where their trees go? “You manage what you measure,” says O’Neil-Dunne. “Increasingly, communities realize that they want to protect and manage their green infrastructure as well. Trees are a public good.”

Which is why Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and dozens of other cities and counties work with the Spatial Analysis Lab to develop detailed counts and maps of their urban tree canopies. Using satellite imagery, aerial photography, advanced spatial statistics, huge amounts of computing power—and a small army of undergraduate assistants—the lab gives mayors and planners a scintillatingly beautiful, and shockingly precise, view of the living roof that makes a city pleasant and cool.

In 2011, scientists from the UVM lab completed a tree canopy assessment for Philadelphia’s parks department. When they repeated the analysis in 2019, the team found that, over a decade, Philadelphia had lost more than a thousand football fields worth of its tree canopy. If a thousand actual football fields disappeared, someone would notice.

Leaders and conservation activists in Philadelphia had been noticing. The lab’s discovery that trees were being removed from residential land at a rate that outpaced efforts to replant—1,980 acres of canopy gained, but 3,075 acres lost—has helped spark renewed efforts to plant trees, and the launch of a ten-year urban forestry plan aiming to push the city’s tree cover from 20 to 30 percent.

“It’s awesome to see how drastically a landscape can change in just four years,” says Dayna Ullathorne ’21, one of the many students who work in the Spatial Analysis Lab in UVM’s Rubenstein School. She’s been scouring image files—correcting for tree shadows and misidentified buildings—for a canopy mapping effort in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The scale of this new project is bigger than the one completed in Philadelphia, but the fundamental facts are the same: trees reduce summer temperatures through transpiration, they provide habitat for birds, they lock-away prodigious quantities of climate-warming carbon, and they even reduce crime. “When you click between new and old images, you can see where a pipeline has been built or young trees have been planted,” says Ullathorne. “It might not seem like a huge deal when you’re on the ground, but from above you can see how everything is connected.”

Researchers crouch on Vermont forest floor

Close to Home: Tracking Climate Change

When it comes to stories about climate change in Vermont, it’s hard to beat Joe’s Pond in the Northeast Kingdom—where locals bet on when the ice melts. Since the 1980s, folks have put a cinder block on the pond when it freezes. When the ice melts, the block sinks—unplugging an alarm clock that captures the exact time of the melt. There’s a clear pattern. The ice is melting earlier.

“When it comes to climate change in Vermont, the future is now,” says Gillian Galford, a UVM climate scientist leading the Vermont Climate Assessment 2020, an ambitious study of climate change in the Green Mountain State.

“Vermonters may differ on how to deal with climate change, but they are personally connected to the climate,” says Galford, a researcher at UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “They’re not surprised that the ice is going off earlier. They say, ‘Yes, I noticed that.’”

People want a framework to make sense of these changes, adds Galford. That’s the goal of the Vermont Climate Assessment, she says, to pair science with stories, and help government and citizens understand the future impacts.

“We want to help people to feel more prepared, to make better decisions, and be more resilient to climate change,” says Joshua Faulkner, research assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who co-leads the project.

All the best climate science suggests Vermont will become a warmer and wetter place to live and work. The Vermont Climate Assessment 2020 is using advanced climate research and data modeling to understand how rising temperature and precipitation—as well as more extreme events, such as droughts, and other climactic variables—will impact key sectors, including the economy, health, agriculture, water, energy, transportation, and forests.

Take the town of Rutland, Vermont, which now experiences ten to twelve days of extreme precipitation a year, but used to encounter only four, says Galford, who worked with town planners. “When they have that data—that Rutland is experiencing three times as much heavy precipitation—it’s something they can use to make decisions to spend tax dollars to plan roads and infrastructure,” says Galford. “They can plan for that trend to probably continue for the next decade or two, if not longer.”

Team member Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, professor of geography (pictured above, right), led the Northeast chapter of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, an effort mandated by U.S. Congress in the Global Change Research Act. Working toward the next national analysis, Dupigny-Giroux says, “It’s important to look at local impacts, and how those can bubble up and affect national impacts. None of the changes—fall foliage changing earlier, ski industry impacts—occur just within our state borders. Impacts happen on a regional, continental, all the way up to the global scale.”

Photos by Josh Brown, Elliot Debruyn, Andy Duback, Paddy Photography, and Mohit Tomar

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