Apply Now: UW Population Health + EarthLab Team Up for Next Round of Pilot Research Grants

For the third year in a row, EarthLab has partnered with the UW Population Health Initiative to offer a pilot research grant of up to $50,000.

The grant is intended to encourage the development of new interdisciplinary collaborations between investigators and community partners for projects that address critical challenges to population health and the disproportionate impact of climate change on health in vulnerable communities. Applications for are due on January 29, 2021.

Timeline for the winter 2021 application period was as follows.

Application Period Opens: January 4, 2021
Application Deadline: January 29, 2021 (11:59 p.m. Pacific)
Awardees Notified: mid March, 2021
Period of Performance: May 1, 2021 – April 30, 2022

Learn more about the RFP and key dates here

Learn more about our previously funded projects:

Ethnoforestry: Applying Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Ecosystem Sustainability on the Olympic Peninsula (2019)

Environmental and Human Health Impacts of a New Invasive Species in Madagascar (2020)

EarthLab’s ‘Voices Unbound’ second season talks of social tensions from COVID-19

This article was originally published in UW News.

Voices Unbound: Enviro-Amplify” is a podcast created by EarthLab and UW Tacoma, and hosted by Robin Evans-Agnew associate professor in the school’s Nursing and Healthcare Leadership Program. The podcast has now published its second season.

“In this series opener we go way-deep into the social tensions of our time,” show notes say, “discussing how racism in law enforcement and governmental responses to the COVID-19 epidemic contribute important environmental threats to communities in our region and elsewhere.”

The podcast also will continue to report on its analysis of answers to questions posed since 2019 about public attitudes toward environmental challenges.

Principal investigators for the work are Evans-Agnew and Christopher Schell, urban ecologist and assistant professor in UW Tacoma’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences.

Read an earlier UW Notebook story about this podcast. For more information, contact Evans-Agnew at

As Wildfire Smoke Clears, King County’s Airport Communities Continue Fight for Clean Air

This article was originally published in The Seattle Times.

Through thick haze from fires, a plane taxis to a runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Sept. 15. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

SEATAC — As massive clouds of smoke from wildfires throughout the region obscured the sky last week, SeaTac Deputy Mayor Peter Kwon filtered the air in his own home by attaching a furnace filter to a box fan and then duct-taping a triangular piece of cardboard over the gaps. When the air quality index (AQI) rose to 225 last week, Kwon said that his contraption reduced the living room to below 50 AQI.

The ultrafine particles from aviation and roadway traffic had long concerned Kwon, who lives about a half-mile from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: While recent wildfires have forced residents across Western Washington to experience the hazards of poor air quality, Kwon and others who live in communities surrounding the airport say they’ll continue to face a year-round threat to their air from aviation-related pollution.

Three months ago, Kwon joined three other residents who had installed air monitors on their properties near the airport by placing one outside of his home. Their findings, documented in the citizen-gathered Purple Air Map, came as no surprise to him: “The air quality around the airport is not as clean as areas farther away,” he said.

He believes the addition of smoke pollution could form a toxic cocktail that would exacerbate respiratory diseases such as COVID-19. “One of the problems is that SeaTac has historically had poor air quality. So with the wildfires, the poor air quality has just skyrocketed,” Kwon said.

As wildfires become more common along the West Coast, residents of airport communities such as SeaTac, Burien and Des Moines fear they will be harder hit by pollution. In the future, cities under flight paths will need to become “smoke ready,” said Elena Austin, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s department of environmental and occupational health sciences. “But they’re also going to have to develop ways to be resilient to the air and road traffic impact on their communities.”

Local politicians, residents, and researchers are working with airport communities throughout the nation to study the effects of air pollutants, as well as brainstorm solutions for homes and schools. For the Port of Seattle’s part, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has electrified hundreds of ground vehicles and encouraged Uber and Lyft to reduce carbon emissions by switching to hybrid or electric cars.

“We recognize that the local communities have the impact from the airport,” said Perry Cooper, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s media relations manager.

Still, concerned residents say more drastic changes are needed to address the potentially harmful effects of particles seeping into windows and doorways.

“The impact that’s difficult for people living near the airport is that they already experience and perceive poorer air quality,” said Austin. “So that creates challenges in a search for safe and healthy spaces.”

Wildfire smoke particles are much larger than pollutants emitted from airplanes. For that reason, the aircraft ultrafine particles are more likely to infiltrate the indoors, said Austin, adding that smoke still seeps in.

It is difficult to measure the combined effects of various pollutants during wildfire seasons. Air quality index monitors mostly measure the largest particles in the air, which is the wildfire smoke, said Austin, while ultrafine particles from aviation and ground traffic do not influence the value.

Still, the particle pollution has widespread impacts. SeaTac ranked 14 for 24-hour particle pollution out of 216 cities in The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report. Exposure to air pollution has been shown to cause “delays in psychomotor development, lower IQ in elementary school children, increased risk for autism, greater anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit related problems during childhood,” cited a recent state Department of Health summary of health research on ultrafine particles.

Meanwhile, SeaTac has among the highest percentage of positive COVID-19 cases in the county, according to Public Health – Seattle & King County, at 2,070 per 100,000 compared to King County’s 964 per 100,000.

Environmental advocates argue that the area’s shorter life expectancy compared to King County’s average indicates that residents are living in unhealthy conditions.

“We have a perfect chemical zoo of potential respiratory problems,” said former Burien City Councilmember Debi Wagner. She’s now a member of the Burien Airport Committee, where she advises the City Council on matters concerning the airport, as well as the nonprofit Quiet Skies Coalition.

Wagner started researching airport emissions about two decades ago, when she said she awoke in her quiet Des Moines home to a “war zone” as hundreds of jets suddenly flew overhead every day.

A two-year UW study released last December study shows that ultrafine particles emitted by aircrafts impact communities under their flight paths. This graphic is from the report. (University of Washington)

“As wildfires are becoming the norm, airport communities need mitigation more critically than other areas because we’re living with a much lower quality of air and life,” said Wagner, now a Burien resident.

About three years ago, SeaTac lobbied the State of Washington to fund an air quality study in the vicinity of the airport. That led to a two-year UW study co-authored by Austin and released last December, funded by the Washington State Legislature and the Port of Seattle. The study showed that ultrafine particles emitted by aircrafts impact communities under their flight paths.

UW plans to launch a second phase of the study that will rely on drones to measure the effect of vegetation on ultrafine particles. Researchers hope the study will offer insight on the role of urban planning programs that use greenery to mitigate particulate air pollution.

Last year, the state Legislature voted to create another commercial airport in Washington, which Kwon hopes will reduce layover flights at Sea-Tac that contribute to air pollution. “The reality is that Sea-Tac airport is so small: There’s a physical size limit of the airport because it’s surrounded by developed land,” he said.


Black scientists call out racism in the field and counter it

This 2020 photo provided by Tanisha Williams shows her in Lewisburg, Pa. Williams, a botanist at Bucknell University, knows exactly which plants she’s looking for. But after being questioned by strangers in public parks, Williams, who is Black, has started carrying her field guides with her. “I’ve been quizzed by random strangers,” she said. “Now I bring my wildflower books and botanical field guides, trying to look like a scientist. It’s for other people. I wouldn’t otherwise lug these books.” (Tanisha Williams via AP)


This article was originally published by the Associated Press.

University of Washington ecologist Christopher Schell is studying how coronavirus shutdowns have affected wildlife in Seattle and other cities. But when planning fieldwork, he also thinks about how he’s perceived in neighborhoods where he installs wildlife cameras.

“I wear the nerdiest glasses I have and often a jacket that has my college logo, so that people don’t mistake me for what they think is a thug or hooligan,” said Schell, who is African American.

The recent episode of a white woman calling the police on a Black birder in New York’s Central Park shocked many people. But for Black environmental scientists, worrying about whether they are likely to be harassed or asked to justify their presence while doing fieldwork is a familiar concern.

Tanisha Williams, a botanist at Bucknell University, knows exactly which plants she’s looking for. But after being questioned by strangers in public parks, Williams, who is Black, has started carrying her field guides with her.

“I’ve been quizzed by random strangers,” she said. “Now I bring my wildflower books and botanical field guides, trying to look like a scientist. It’s for other people. I wouldn’t otherwise lug these books.”

This 2016 photo provided by Tanisha Williams shows her in Cape Town, South Africa. (Beatrix D. Fields/Tanisha Williams via AP)

Overt harassment and subtle intimidation during fieldwork compound the discrimination that Black scientists and those from other underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds already feel in academic settings.

Now researchers in the environmental sciences are increasingly raising issues of discrimination and marginalization in the wake of a national reckoning on race. They are also pointing out how a lack of diversity among scientists can lead to flawed or incomplete research.

National Science Foundation survey found that in 2016, scholars who identified as Black or African American were awarded just 6% of all doctorates in life sciences, and less than 3% of doctorates in physical and Earth sciences. Students who identified as Hispanic or Latino were awarded less than 8% of doctorates in life sciences and about 5% of doctorates in physical and Earth sciences. According to the most recent census, Black people make up 13.4% of the population, and Latinos 18.5%.

“The issue is not lack of interest” on the part of students from the underrepresented groups, said the University of Washington’s Scott Freeman, who studies educational pipelines to degrees in science, technology, engineering or math. But many of those students come from families with fewer financial resources and face gaps in access to secondary education that is geared toward the sciences or college preparation. Those factors can influence how well they perform in freshman general chemistry — considered a gateway course for pursuing these so-called STEM majors.

It’s possible to decrease the impact of these disadvantages by adjusting teaching styles, such as replacing traditional large lectures with hands-on learning, according to Freeman’s research. And students from underrepresented backgrounds who overcome initial obstacles are “ hyper persistent ” in their studies, continuing at higher rates in STEM fields compared with their white peers, he found.

Addressing these gaps has taken on new urgency as the U.S. confronts systemic racism in the wake of nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.

At a meeting this summer of the Society for Conservation Biology North America, one panel was devoted to “why conservation science needs to prioritize racial and social justice.” Hundreds of scientists have joined a wider discussion among academics about racism, posting their personal experiences of discrimination under the Twitter hashtag #BlackintheIvory, referring to the ivory tower.

But environmental scientists must confront discrimination not just in the halls of academia but in the field as well.

Carnivore ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant, a fellow at the National Geographic Society, said she has to put her “feelings aside” when her fieldwork takes her to places where she encounters racist symbols. While driving in rural Maryland to study bears, Wynn-Grant, who is Black, passed several Confederate flags and a cloth doll of a lynched man hanging from a tree.

“This is the extra labor Black people have to do in order to participate in something they’re interested in,” she said.

Many researchers say that exposing middle school and high school students to scientists from diverse backgrounds is essential to combating systemic racism.

“Growing up, the only Black botanist I’d heard of was George Washington Carver,” said Williams, the scientist at Bucknell, who helped organize a Twitter campaign to highlight the achievements of Black botanists.

Itumeleng Moroenyane, a doctoral student at the National Institute of Scientific Research in Quebec, grew up in post-apartheid South Africa and said he was the only Black botany student in his university’s graduating class. Moroenyane now makes it a priority to mentor younger Black scholars.

This 2019 photo provided by Itumeleng Moroenyane shows him in Laval, Quebec, Canada. (Itumeleng Moroenyane via AP)

Corina Newsome said her passion for biology started during a high school internship at the Philadelphia Zoo, where a zookeeper who mentored her was the first Black scientist she had met.

Now an ornithologist at Georgia Southern University, Newsome, who is Black, said institutions can promote diversity by helping students find mentors and offering paid internships. “To enter wildlife studies, you are often expected to do a lot of free labor and free internships early in your career,” she said. “This automatically excludes many people.”

Empowering ecologists and other researchers from diverse backgrounds can improve the research itself, scientists say.

Deja Perkins, a Black conservation biologist at North Carolina State University, has studied gaps in how community-science bird-watching projects are conducted in wealthy and poor communities.

“It’s a problem if data from poor neighborhoods isn’t collected, and that shapes wildlife management plans,” she said.

The University of Washington’s Schell noted that Black scientists have led the field of urban ecology to examine crucial questions about how redlining — racial discrimination in mortgage-lending practices — has shaped urban landscapes, influencing which neighborhoods have more or less green space and biodiversity.

This 2020 photo provided by Deja Perkins shows her on Sapelo Island, Ga. (Jason Ward/Deja Perkins via AP)

“Who you are affects the questions you ask and the type of data that’s being collected,” Schell said. “We cannot understand how our natural world interacts with our cities without understanding the problems and legacy of racism.”


Follow Larson at


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Systemic racism has consequences for all life in cities

Megan Kitagawa/UW Tacoma
An aerial view showing the differences in tree cover in two neighboring cities. The more affluent city of University Place, Washington (left) has more tree cover, while a neighborhood in the city of Tacoma, Washington (right) has fewer trees. The neighborhoods are about 4.5 miles apart.

Social inequalities, specifically racism and classism, are impacting the biodiversity, evolutionary shifts and ecological health of plants and animals in our cities.

That’s the main finding of a review paper led by the University of Washington, with co-authors at the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Michigan, which examined more than 170 published studies and analyzed the influence of systemic inequalities on ecology and evolution. Published Aug. 13 in Science, it calls on the scientific community to focus on environmental justice and anti-racism practices to transform biological research and conservation.

“Racism is destroying our planet, and how we treat each other is essentially structural violence against our natural world,” said lead author Christopher Schell, an assistant professor of urban ecology at the University of Washington Tacoma. “Rather than just changing the conversation about how we treat each other, this paper will hopefully change the conversation about how we treat the natural world.”

The authors also hope this paper paves the way for younger scientists entering the field, especially people of color, to have legitimacy in pushing for science that is centered around anti-racism and environmental justice.

“Identity matters, and creating space for researchers who aren’t straight white cis males to pursue questions that arise from their lived experiences can really strengthen science,” said co-author Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, assistant professor and social scientist in the UW School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. “I hope that scientists will read this paper and be inspired to think about representation in our labs and departments, and how that might matter for science going forward.”

Read more at UW News

Learn more about our Innovation Grants program, including the Voices Unbound project co-led by Schell and the Píkyav on the Mid-Klamath River: Peeshkêesh Yáv Umúsaheesh project co-led by Woelfle-Erskine.

EarthLab Innovation Grant project selected as a finalist for a “Science Breakthrough of the Year” award at Falling Walls 2020

We are pleased to share that one of our inaugural Innovation Grant projects was selected as a finalist for a “Science Breakthrough of the Year” award by the Falling Walls Conference, an annual world forum for leaders across sectors and disciplines to come together to discuss pressing global challenges and answer the question, “Which are the next walls to fall in science and society?”

From Risk to Resilience: Connecting Communities to Coastal Hazards Through Interactive and Immersive Design” received an EarthLab Innovation Grant in 2019 to create more engaging, immersive and interactive tools to help tell the stories of the science, risks and realities of regional sea level rise. This project aims to capture the stories of hope and action of on-the-ground dialogue happening in states, counties, and cities that are actively working to adapt to rising seas.

The EarthLab Innovation Grants program invest in teams of University of Washington researchers, students and non-academic partners developing innovative solutions to pressing environmental challenges. The Risk to Resilience project has the spirit of “falling walls” in its DNA, from the makeup of its diverse team of experts to its goals of creating visualization tools that can help decision-makers from the smallest towns to the largest countries visualize and compare sea level rise projections through the year 2150. This tools is already being used by the WA Department of Ecology, Seattle Public Utilities, and King County.

All Falling Walls finalist projects will be reviewed by a distinguished jury and a top 10 list of finalists will be presented at the digital Winner’s Session on 8 November. Out of these 10, one Science Engagement Breakthrough of the Year 2020 will be selected by the jury and announced amongst the breakthroughs of other categories at a top-class award ceremony in front of an audience of global leaders on 9 November, the anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall.

Congratulations to the projects principal investigators Heidi Roop and Peter Neff, graduate student Paige Lavin, and their teammates from the Seattle Public Library, Seattle Public Utilities, Climate Impacts Group and Tableau!

Can Trees Clean Up Jet Pollution?

This article was originally published on the DEOHS blog.

Members of Seto’s team test a drone outfitted with air pollution sensors. From left, DEOHS PhD student Yisi Liu, UW undergraduate Chris Hayner, DEOHS postdoc Jianbang Xiang and Research Scientist Tim Gould. Photo: David Shean


New DEOHS study uses drones to test whether vegetation filters harmful aircraft pollution

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, once called trees the lungs of the city.

Trees and shrubs filter a variety of air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter.

But could they also benefit communities near airports by absorbing harmful ultrafine particles from aircraft exhaust?

A team of University of Washington researchers led by Edmund Seto, associate professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS), is using drones to answer this question in King County.

Their new project, which was recently awarded a $75,000 UW EarthLab Innovation grant, is a partnership with the Seattle nonprofit community group El Centro de la Raza and state and local agencies.

The problem with ultrafine particles

Last year, Seto and colleagues reported that planes descending toward Seattle-Tacoma International Airport leave behind a plume of air pollution in communities underneath and downwind of their landing paths. Similar plumes have previously been documented at Los Angeles International Airport and others.

In their Mobile ObserVations of Ultrafine Particles (MOV-UP) study, Seto’s team showed that jet pollution is dominated by ultrafine particles, invisible flecks of less than a micron in diameter. When inhaled, they can pass into lung tissue and the bloodstream, as well as through the blood-brain barrier and across the placenta.

Greater exposure to these miniscule pollutants is linked with increased risk for heart and lung disease, some cancers and adverse birth outcomes. It may even contribute to cognitive issues such as dementia.

Community-inspired science

So what can we do about this? That was the question Seto heard again and again in talking with city leaders, community partners and residents about the results of the MOV-UP study.

Members of El Centro de La Raza, a nonprofit in Beacon Hill committed to serving the Latino community and people of all races, wondered whether urban planting projects could help.

As Seto dug into the literature, he found some hopeful evidence. It’s still unclear, however, what type and configuration of planting works best to filter out ultrafine particulates.

“Not every type of urban greening project might be as effective,” Seto said. “There are some interesting questions there.”

Read the rest of the story on the DEOHS blog.

2020 Innovation Grants Announced

UW EarthLab selects four community-led research teams to solve complex environmental challenges and make a positive impact on people’s lives and livelihoods

Today EarthLab announced that four transdisciplinary teams have been selected for the 2020-2021 Innovation Grants program. This signature initiative provides essential funding to newly formed applied research teams that are led by and with community partners who are impacted by a complex environmental problem. Each team will receive up to $75,000 to research the issue and develop science that can be acted upon to make a positive impact on people and communities. The award period lasts 16 months and final products are due by September 30, 2021. 

EarthLab co-funded a fifth project earlier this year in collaboration with the UW Population Health Initiative. In total, EarthLab has awarded $325,000 in research grants in 2020.

Interest in the Innovation Grants program has rapidly grown since its inaugural funding round last year. This year, 43 teams submitted letters of intent to apply to the RFP, of which 18 were invited to submit a full proposal. Proposals were evaluated by an 11-member review committee that included faculty and staff from several disciplines and a community member from outside of the university. 

“EarthLab’s Innovation Grants program is unique in that it inspires brand new, interdisciplinary teams to come together to not only identify an environmental challenge but to work together to develop ways to solve problems,” said Rob Wood, chair of the Innovation Grants review committee. “The large number of thoughtful and creative submissions tells me that the opportunity strikes a chord with UW faculty and community members. It was extremely difficult to turn down so many teams but I am really excited to watch the awarded projects develop over the next year.”

Project teams included faculty from a range of disciplines at the University of Washington, including public health, environmental and occupational health sciences, civil & environmental engineering, atmospheric sciences, marine sciences, landscape architecture, humanities, American Indian Studies and more. Partners from beyond the university include Tribal leaders and communities, city governments, community organizers and other universities.

In addition to the funds awarded, Innovation Grant recipients receive administrative and communications support throughout the award period. All teams are invited to meet as a cohort at workshop-style meetings which are designed to share resources on interdisciplinary and community-engaged research, create the opportunity for co-learning and networking, and to provide a structured space to work collaboratively on their projects.

“This funding is a crucial part of what we do at Earthlab, and I’m proud of the approach we take to support our grantee teams,” said Anastasia Ramey, grants program lead at EarthLab. “Our goal is not only to fund interesting and impactful research, but to create opportunities for connection and shared learning.”

EarthLab is an initiative launched out of the UW College of the Environment to solve the biggest problem of our lifetime – our changing environment. EarthLab works across the entire university to accelerate and focus UW’s broad expertise across multiple fields, amplify engagement between private, public, non-profit and community leaders, and spur the development of co-created, meaningful, science-based solutions to improve people’s lives and livelihoods. The Innovation Grants program is an annual initiative supported by newly raised funds. 

Learn more about the Innovation Grants program here and check back often for news regarding the 2019 and 2020 funded projects.

Funded Projects

EarthLab funds environmental research for underrepresented communities

This article was written by The Daily.

After founding the College of the Environment in 2009, the board of regents saw the UW’s potential and responsibility to contribute the knowledge and skills of researchers and students toward solving complex environmental challenges.

As a result, EarthLab was created.

“EarthLab’s mission is to identify the places where life on our planet is at the greatest risk and to co-create solutions that will have a real impact on people’s lives and livelihood,” Anastasia Ramey, EarthLab’s Innovation Grants Program lead, said.

Through various projects and innovation grants, EarthLab combines the research and expertise from UW faculty, staff, and students with nonprofits, businesses, policymakers, and other stakeholders to develop solutions to environmental challenges.

“EarthLab is here to engage public, private, nonprofit, and academic sectors in a shared and ongoing conversation that converts knowledge to action,” Ramey said.

Through EarthLab’s Innovation Grants Program, teams who are passionate about pressing environmental challenges can receive funding. The program awards up to $75,000 per project, and funds between four to six projects each year. This year, they have $300,000 available to support new partnerships.

“We’re interested in projects that address everything from effects of climate change on people and ecosystems, to environmental pollution or hazards that disproportionately affect Indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities, to the impact of nature on the built environment and human health,” Ramey said.

Read more here.

EarthLab and Population Health co-award grant to study new invasive species in Madagascar

We’re excited to announce a new research project that will be co-funded by UW EarthLab and UW Population Health. The aim of the proposed pilot project, “Environmental and human health impacts of a new invasive species in Madagascar,” is to provide the Malagasy government with the information it needs to appropriately manage the invasive marbled crayfish (Procambarus virginalis) in ways that minimize impacts on local biodiversity while maximizing benefits to public health.

The project team is a a new interdisciplinary collaboration, with Chelsea Wood, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; Peter Rabinowitz, UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Services; Luciano Andriamaro, Réseau International Schistosomiase Environnement Amenagement et Lutte; Susanne Sokolow and Giulio DeLeo, Stanford University Julia PG Jones, Bangor University; and two Malagasy partners: RISEAL and Madagascar’s Ministry of Health.

This is the second co-awarded grantee between EarthLab and Population Health. The inaugural research project, “Ethnoforestry: Applying Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Ecosystem Sustainability on the Olympic Peninsula,” focuses on applying traditional ecological knowledge of local people to forest management on public lands. This results of this project are expected in late 2020.

The University of Washington Population Health Initiative announced the award of approximately $250,000 in pilot research grant funding to six different faculty-led teams. For more information on Population Health and their 2020 grantees, visit the Population Health website.