This Summer, TRI Funds Student Research in World’s Tropical Regions
This summer, the F&ES-based Tropical Resources Institute is funding the research of nearly 20 students working in the planet’s tropical zones. We caught up with three of them.
By Timothy Brown
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Deepti Chatti ’19 Ph.D. is spending her summer studying energy transitions in the Indian Himalayan.
New and efficient cookstoves have long been promoted by non-governmental organizations, policy makers, and academics as a panacea for many of the problems facing rural India, from slowing deforestation and improving public health to alleviating the daily drudgery for Indian women. But these are problematic assumptions, says Deepti Chatti, a Ph.D. candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies [F&ES] who studies rural household energy transitions in India.
“When I first got into this area of research, I found a lot of literature talking about the adoption of stoves, but not really looking at the households,” Chatti said. “And I really felt if one wanted to look at why households are adopting or not adopting certain stoves, why households were doing what they were doing, one of the best ways to do it was with the people you’re trying to understand.”
As one of nearly 20 students whose international research projects are being funded this summer by the F&ES-based Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), Chatti has the opportunity to do just that. Founded 31 years ago, TRI supports independent research through competitive grants, and provides both training and networking opportunities for students.
In addition to funding research, TRI hosts a workshop on health, safety, sexual safety, and cultural sensitivity to help prepare fellows for their fieldwork. And each year a select number of students publish their findings in the TRI Bulletin.
The tropics are home to the greatest biological and cultural diversity on Earth, but its peoples are also amongst the world’s poorest. And their economies, like the climate, are rapidly changing. According to Devon Parish, TRI program coordinator, these social and ecological challenges provide numerous research opportunities for students.
“I think in some ways it’s a unique laboratory to study things that are relevant way beyond the tropics” Parish said. “Often culture-nature conflicts are at the heart of student research.”
Students submit grant applications during the fall semester. Parish and TRI director Simon Queensborough, a lecturer and research scientist at F&ES, review each proposal and provide initial feedback. During the second-round, proposals are read by the all-faculty TRI advisory board. Students must have their advisor’s support and institutional review board [IRB] approval, if applicable. Ultimately, each proposal is read by three or four faculty. For many students, this is the first time they’ve applied for grant funding. Parish says the goal is to have a rigorous proposal process that also supports student learning.
TRI sponsors a range of projects in both the social and natural sciences
We caught up with three of those students whose summer research reflects the diverse cultural and biological challenges facing the world’s tropical regions.
Bart DiFiore, ’17 M.F.S. is using funding from TRI this summer to research marine predation at the Smithsonian’s Carrie Bow Cay Field Station, some 15 miles off the coast of Belize.
Coral reefs are home to herbivorous fishes that graze the surrounding sea grass creating “grazing halos” that can be seen from space. According to the prevailing hypothesis, the distance that these fishes graze sea grass is limited by the abundance of predator fishes in the area. DiFiore wants to know if satellite imagery can be used to accurately estimate predator abundance in coral reef ecosystems.
Bart DiFiore ’17 M.F.S. is using funding from TRI to research marine predation at the Smithsonian’s Carrie Boe Cay Field Station, located about 15 miles off the coast of Belize.
It sounds like a lot of fun — swimming transects and attaching GoPro cameras to the bottom of the ocean floor to record the number of predator and prey fishes in the reef. But DiFiore, who grew up commercial fishing and hopes to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in marine ecology, says there are potentially wide-reaching implications for this research. First, it is difficult to estimate predator abundance in coral reefs because many of these fishes — such as reef sharks, barracuda, snapper, grunts, grouper, and jacks — are migratory and difficult to count. Second, grazing can affect the amount of carbon — so-called “blue carbon” — that sea grass can sequester. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], coastal habitats can store three to five times more carbon per equivalent area than tropical forests. DiFiore will collect sediment cores and quantify the direct affects of grazing on blue carbon stocks. Third, his research contributes to larger theoretical questions about the role of predators in maintaining ecosystem structure and function.
Parish says TRI wants to be F&ES’s “hub for all things tropical,” and they support partnerships with other schools and programs at Yale. Tess McNamara ’18 M.E.M./M. Arch., a joint student at the Yale School of Architecture, is spending part of her summer studying urban gardens, or organopónicos, in Cuba thanks to a grant from TRI.
Following the collapse of its major trading partner, the Soviet Union, Cuba lost much of its funding and access to pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and many other agricultural products. Cubans, who had previously imported as much as 50 percent of their food, began to convert open space — such as marginal and fallow lands, vacant lots, and parking lots — into urban gardens. And without access to the chemical fertilizers and petroleum inputs often found in industrial agriculture systems, these gardens became de facto organic. It is estimated that there are some 35,000 hectares (over 87,000 acres) of urban gardens in Havana alone.
Research by Tess McNamara ’18 M.E.M./M.Arch. explores the spatial elements of urban farms in Cuba, such as this one located next to a housing development in Santiago de Cuba.
McNamara, who has degrees in architecture and environmental studies from Princeton University, is interested in the spatial aspects of these farms. She says urban farming is not taken seriously by most agriculturalists because there hasn’t been an economic need for cities to embrace it. Instead, urban gardens are generally seen as a supplement for other food sources. But in post-crisis recovery, urban farming can be essential to people’s welfare. For example, New Orleans experienced a similar phenomenon after Hurricane Katrina, McNamara says, when open space was converted to urban farms.
“I think the current food system is headed for disaster,” she observed. “We need to pay more attention to urban agriculture, not as a supplement, but as an actual food source.”
Other researchers have studied organopónicos, but little attention has been paid to the architectural aspects of these urban gardens. McNamara is interested in whether the lessons learned in Cuba can be replicated in other places such as Haiti, another geographically-isolated, post-disaster island. “Are there elements of this we can implement preemptively?” she asked.
According to Deepti Chatti ’19 Ph.D., an engineer by training who employs both qualitative and quantitative research methods, people living in rural India often use three or four different cook stoves depending on the season, or for cooking a particular dish. There are also cultural reasons to use one stove over another. For example, despite the fact that most of her subjects have access to electricity, wood-burning mud stoves — which hold spiritual significance for local people — are used all year long.
International actors — NGOs, policy makers, and others — know that local people use multiple stoves, and understand the challenges in choosing one stove to replace all the others, she says. And yet, they continue to work on these projects with academic researchers. Her research seeks to understand why.
“There are so many other actors outside the household who are interested in what’s going on in the household that I feel like there’s something really interesting happening there,” she said. “And I’d miss out on the story if I just studied one or the other.”