Research Profile: Kevin Gardner

Research Profile: Kevin Gardner

Monday, February 10, 2014

Kevin GardnerCreating Knowledge that Leads to Action for Sustainability

“It’s not just about creating knowledge; it’s about creating knowledge that actually leads to action, not a report on a shelf.”

That is the goal that Kevin Gardner, professor of civil engineering and Faculty Fellow in the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Research, strives to reach through the field of sustainability science. Gardner conceptualizes and organizes interdisciplinary teams to work collaboratively to accomplish the goal of educating and inspiring action towards sustainability in the environment.

His interest in this field began at a young age, when a calculus teacher suggested he put his problem-solving skills towards a career in engineering. While he was unsure of what branch of engineering to pursue, one caught his attention – environmental engineering. “It is solving problems about humans’ impact on the environment, which I thought was great. I would solve problems, but I would solve problems about something I care a lot about.”

Ecosystems and Society

Gardner ‘s current sustainability project, Ecosystems and Society, studies New Hampshire ecosystems by using real-time environmental sensors across the state. These carefully-placed sensors measure water conditions, water quality, and soil conditions to better understand how ecosystems actually function. Ultimately, Gardner and his team will use that information to understand the value that these ecosystems provide to people. “For example,” he says, “the clean water flowing in the river has a huge value to you and me. We can put dollar figures on that.

How much is the clean water in that river worth to you, to drink, to swim in, to boat in? We are valuing services that the ecosystems provide.”

One local problem Gardner uses as an example is excess nitrogen found in New Hampshire’s Great Bay. “Some nitrogen comes from waste water treatment plants, and the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] is mandating that all these towns around here upgrade their treatment plants, which is a two hundred million dollar job. Now rivers clean up a lot of the nitrogen that is put in, about 80 percent. So rivers provide this service that is valued in the two hundred million dollar range.”

Preserving these natural systems that provide important, and costly, services to us is the message of the project. “If we don’t have those services, we’re going to be paying for them in a different way.”

A Collaborative Effort

His most recent work in sustainability science has been influenced heavily by interdisciplinary work. “I’ve always recognized that all these different perspectives have value and can really improve upon whatever we are trying to achieve.” A current project, Safe Beaches and Shellfish, includes individuals from institutions in New Hampshire and Maine (including UNH and the University of Maine). This project will provide data that will help researchers better understand how humans impact beach and shellfish, and that can be used to improve decision making around these topics. Beaches are important to their local economies. For example, if a beach is closed, often it hurts the community financially. However, if the beach remains open when bacteria counts are high, beach visitors are at a greater risk of becoming ill.

Members involved in the Safe Beaches and Shellfish project work together to address this issue from different angles, utilizing their knowledge from their own perspectives and fields. “We have people who have expertise on bacteria and how bacteria grow in that environment, which cause risk to people who visit the beach. We also have people in sociology who ask ‘what does the beach mean for people who live in that community, and how is it that they rely on that beach for income?’ So we study the process both ways. It’s what we call a coupled socio-ecological system.”

Faculty Research Excellence Seminar – Research in Sustainability Science

This type of interdisciplinary collaboration will be the topic of discussion on Feb.17, 2014, by a panel put together by Gardner.

“My interest in that was to demonstrate to people across the UNH campus that sustainability science needs and uses all different disciplines.” The panel consists of individuals with backgrounds that most people may not associate with sustainability science. Experts from Health Management and Public Policy, Cooperative Extension, and Civil Engineering will come together to talk about their contributions to research in sustainability science.

“People might not see their own work fitting into this field,” Gardner concludes, “so it is important to showcase those who are doing really good sustainability science work, but who represent a very broad set.”

By Cynthia Plascencia

This story first appeared on the UNH Research website.