The Nachusa Grasslands near Dixon, Ill., just a 45-minute drive from the NIU campus, had a new…
DeKalb, Ill. — The planned Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability (NICCS) continues to gain momentum, with new faces on campus who will help heighten its profile and faculty affiliates already embarking on exciting new research.
Announced in October 2018, NICCS is part of the Illinois Innovation Network, a group of research and innovation centers aimed at driving economic growth in Illinois and addressing critical global issues. The NIU center supports interdisciplinary research, policy development and public-private partnerships to stimulate economic development and job creation, as well as to attract and develop talent.
The center’s home will be constructed on NIU’s west campus, with about $15 million of the cost to be financed by IIN state capital funding. NIU will provide $7.9 million through in-kind contributions, private investment and donations. The facility is targeted for opening in FY 2022-23.
“We continue to make progress on our plans, including completion of a concept design,” said Jerry Blazey, NIU’s vice president for research and innovation partnerships.
The concept design calls for a building with classrooms, offices, an atrium, an auditorium and collaborative and conference spaces. Two envisaged wings are planned for research and external tenants.
Blazey said the center’s progress also is benefiting from new university hires this year, including College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Brinkmann, a professor of geology with a high level of expertise in sustainability, and Luke Sebby, director of NIU innovation partnerships and technology transfer.
“We will be drawing from the expertise of Dr. Brinkmann, who has written an important textbook on environmental sustainability, has a popular sustainability blog and is a pioneering researcher in the field,” Blazey said. “Additionally, Luke brings tremendous knowledge and energy to his position, and will help position the center through strategic relationships with partners in our region.”
Blazey also points to faculty affiliates who have won grants in recent months to conduct research on American prairie restoration, soil microbes, turning trash into usable products, exploring urban-rural connections and enhancing agricultural practices.
Jones and former NIU colleague Nicholas Barber, who’s now at San Diego State University, were awarded $703,000 over four years to study prairie restoration on a little more than a half-acre of the NICCS property site, north of the NIU Convocation Center.
Beginning next year, Jones will plant prairie grasses and wildflowers in 156 small plots there. Ecosystems such as prairies provide important functions and services such as supporting biodiversity and providing clean water and air. These functions are driven by the plants and animals living in that ecosystem and determined by the characteristics of those species, or their “functional traits,” such as plant rates of growth, nutritional requirements and water uptake.
When new species arrive in an ecosystem, or they leave or die off, the number of species and the combination of functional traits present change, so ecosystem functions can change, too. This project will use a carefully designed experiment to change the number and functional traits of prairie plant species growing together and measure the effects on the ecosystem.
“Knowing which species are most likely to arrive or die off, and how they contribute to functions, can help ecologists predict change over time,” said Jones, who holds a joint appointment at NIU in biological sciences and environmental studies. “Such information is especially important for predicting how ecosystems will respond to disturbances like climate change, and for helping to understand how we can best restore damaged ecosystems.”
Additionally, leveraging the project, Geology Professors Megan Brown and Melissa Lenczewski, director of NIU’s Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy, will drill wells at the site to study impacts of restoration on groundwater.
Swingley won $401,000 in funding over four years for his role in a $2.4 million project that involves the Morton Arboretum in suburban Lisle and scientists from other institutions, including former NIU colleague Barber.
The researchers will examine the interaction of plant roots with microbes at Morton Arboretum, Nachusa Grasslands and in laboratory growth cells at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
“What scientists know about how plant roots interact with the soil is based on knowledge of only a few plants,” Swingley said. He will conduct soil microbial analyses and coordinate the project’s sequencing analysis and large-scale machine learning efforts with collaborators at Middle Tennessee State University.
“This project aims to help us understand how plants affect the soil around them,” he added. “We want to characterize these interactions in upwards of 100 plants.”
Additionally, IIN awarded funding totaling about $80,000 to three teams involving NIU researchers.
- NIU Engineering Technology Professor Mahdi Vaezi is working with Krishna Reddy, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The pair will develop a comprehensive municipal solid-waste framework to optimally locate facilities to convert waste to value-added products, select the most efficient conversion technologies, assess environmental and social factors, and analyze the economic feasibility of the conversion plants.
- NIU Anthropology Professor John Murphy is teaming up with professors at UIC to establish a network of researchers to examine how large cities are connected to smaller urban areas in their regions. This will include modeling of coupled social and ecological systems to explore sustainable pathways for the greater Chicago region.
- Professor Kevin Martin, who holds a joint appointment at NIU in environmental studies and engineering technology, and Keith Cadwallader, a professor of food chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will explore how agricultural production practices, including vertical farming, influence product quality. They also will study how such practices can be optimized to enhance consumer acceptability. The work will address current limitations and investigate the use of light quality to enhance the flavor of basil.
“We have a strong network of faculty across the university who have been working on sustainability issues for many years and have ongoing projects that feed into the mission of our new sustainability center,” Blazey said. “It will be exciting to see all that they will accomplish as we move forward and collaborate with each other and with outside experts in the years to come.”
Media Contact: Tom Parisi
Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 areas of study while serving a diverse and international student body.