Research News

Cross-Cutting Initiative Showcase Reflects Interdisciplinary, Theme-Driven Research


At a time when global markets and technological advances have exponentially expanded the impacts of natural resource consumption, the need for sustainable development and interdisciplinary problem-solving cannot be understated. The Earth Institute's Cross-Cutting Initiative (CCI) provides support for researchers to address the far-reaching effects of human activity on natural systems.

As described by Peter Schlosser, CCI director and Earth Institute director of research, at the annual CCI Showcase in April, “The CCI’s primary purpose is to take knowledge in traditional disciplines and apply it to themes that touch upon complex systems such as climate, urbanization or health.” Rather than being confined to looking at a problem from a single discipline, the CCI is fostering more theme-driven research that touches multiple disciplines.

Two presenters at the showcase were Lex van Geen, Doherty Senior Research Scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), and Darby Jack, associate research scientist in the department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health (MSPH), who received a CCI seed grant in the summer of 2008 to assess the availability of credible environmental health information to local communities, and how that availability impacts community action. Jack and van Geen have started by looking at communities in close proximity to mines and smelters in Peru.

“Mining is a critical environmental problem and a critical social problem,” said Jack. The CCI funding has allowed Jack and van Geen to both investigate the science behind the health problems being faced by many Peruvian communities and lay the groundwork for a new, innovative and socially propelled solution.  “We will come up with a list of simple kits that [the communities] can use to test their own levels of toxins and then use these measures to push for action,” explained van Geen. The two researchers have found that when a mining company knows that their surrounding community has assumed the role of the regulatory watchdog, they may be a bit more hesitant to continue traditional, inappropriate methods of mining and waste management.

In another CCI project funded in the summer of 2008, researchers have been working on a modeling system to estimate what impacts migration between rural and urban areas in China has on health. Susana Adamo, associate research scientist at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), and Andrew Moran, assistant professor at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, have discovered that there are many pieces to the puzzle. “The driving forces we are examining are migration and economic development, which are working hand in hand. These changes are having effects on caloric intake, increased dietary fats and decreased physical activity, and are leading to increased obesity,” said Moran.

There are stark differences in levels of risk factors in urban areas and in northern areas. A computer model called the Columbia University Disease Policy Model-China is being developed and will be used to track demographic and health trends. “The goal of this project is to put together a grant application to get more definitive funding to complete the modeling,” said Moran.

Madeleine Thomson, senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), is conducting cross-disciplinary work through the CCI in the form of a training course. With a summer 2007 CCI seed grant, she and her team held the first “Summer Institute” course in 2008, drawing together climate working groups from around the world to discuss climate change information and who it can serve. Climate working groups comprised of climate scientists and health practitioners from various countries and sectors will re-convene this summer to discuss ways in which climate is driving health trends at the population level.

“We already have biometeorology – the impacts of climate on the individual, but we are looking at the population level. We are looking at something that would have an impact at a much broader level,” said Thomson. The Summer Institute’s success in creating a climate change working group network is being maintained through an alumni newsletter that is translated into three different languages.

Marc Levy, deputy director of CIESIN and a 2007 CCI grantee, has been analyzing cause and effect of the dynamic and historic relationship between the environment and national security. An example Levy and his colleagues are researching is whether or not the genocide in Darfur is a product of drought, and whether the drought is a product of climate change. Levy also points to the inverse relationship between security and environmental regulation.

“As we got better at preventing nuclear war, the environmental conditions got worse and worse. In the 70’s the two agendas began to bump into each other. We are approaching a realization that these two issues are no longer held in separate silos, but are in the same silo,” says Levy. Part of the project was a seminar series on environment-conflict linkages. People from across the University attended these seminars, reflecting the immense interest in this topic and warrant for further study.

The CCI is helping to forge new connections between traditionally separate disciplines, and, in doing so, is fostering new and cutting-edge research. The CCI seed fund competition is held once a year. To learn more about projects that have received CCI seed funding, please click here.