ECU researchers lead a new $7.5 million, multi-institutional NSF grant

A $7.5 million grant will help East Carolina University educate students in the geosciences while helping community partners tackle problems that affect agriculture, drinking water, air quality and more.

Moysey, Manda, Heimann-Rios and Leorri discuss how ECU’s new collaborative grant will have positive impacts on the communities of eastern North Carolina. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

ECU is serving as the lead institution of the multidisciplinary and multi-institutional National Science Foundation Cultural Transformation in the Geoscience Community (CTGC) grant.

The project, Leading Inclusive Transformation in Geoscience via an Intercultural Network of Learning Ecosystems (LIT-GEO), aims to provide geoscience experiences for students in societally relevant geoscience research while serving local communities and resolving issues that affect them. The project consists of several programs and components that ultimately aim to create a transformative cultural change in the practices used in geoscience. It is one of only four projects selected for funding nationwide, and ECU will receive $4 million of the $7.5 million over the next five years.

Dr. Adriana Heimann-Rios, associate professor of geological sciences in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, will lead a team of more than two dozen researchers from ECU, North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo (UPRA), along with other universities and community partners in both the United States and Puerto Rico. Dr. Stephen Moysey, director of ECU’s Water Resources Center and professor of geological sciences, initiated the collaboration with NCCU and UPRA. ECU’s co-principal investigators include Moysey and Drs. Eduardo “Edu” Leorri and Dr. Alex K. Manda, associate professors of geological sciences.

“It feels unbelievably amazing that our team was selected by the NSF among four in the entire United States,” Heimann-Rios said. “The team worked very hard and did an excellent job coming up with outside-the-box ideas. We are extremely excited to start the project and provide results.”

Dr. Alex Manda (right) shows a student how to measure groundwater levels in Bogue Banks along North Carolina’s coast. (Photo by Elizabeth Brown-Pickren)

Heimann-Rios said the project would foster new collaborations and opportunities. Beyond a university setting, key community partners include the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Bosque Modelo de Puerto Rico and Ciudadanos del Karso in Puerto Rico. Within the universities, especially for institutions historically serving many first-generation students, Heimann-Rios said the project would be significantly important to graduate students. Students at ECU, NCCU and UPRA will be recruited and trained to assist in research and internships and will receive funds to cover the full cost of their tuition.

“This will have a huge, positive impact on many students over the five years of the project. These funded opportunities will allow students who otherwise may not have been able to obtain a master’s degree or continue beyond their undergraduate degree to advance their careers, creating new geoscience experts that can further impact their communities and human lives,” she said. “To train the next generation of geoscientists in community-based environmental geoscience and general geoscience skills at the same time that we identify cultural changes in geosciences in teaching and research is a game changer.”

Students will have an opportunity to spend time at each institution, learning from different mentors and experiencing other cultures. Heimann-Rios said the intercultural experiences will allow participants to change existing cultures and common practices in the geoscience research community, becoming agents of change for the broader geoscience and STEM community.

Intercultural summits will be held in North Carolina and Puerto Rico communities facing environmental challenges. Researchers will work to identify possible solutions to community needs, which may include addressing water quality issues, soil, air and water contamination (such as lead and arsenic pollutants), saltwater intrusion affecting drinking water or crop irrigation, flood risks, landslide hazards, coastal erosion, identifying and mapping food deserts, fingerprinting critical mineral deposits needed for clean energy transition and promoting environmental justice. The summits will facilitate connections and equitable partnerships between community organizations and academic researchers and will include training, workshops, field experiences and data literacy. Community members will be an active part of the process, which may lead to new initiatives at the community level.

“The new collaborations will allow us to provide solutions to real societal problems. Policy and regulations can be created or modified to improve the quality of life of people in these communities. The ultimate goal is to provide the community with the tools they need to identify and solve geoscience problems or to ask and answer relevant geoscience questions along with geoscientists and students,” Heimann-Rios said.

Dr. Pablo A. Llerandi Román, a geoscience and multicultural science education project collaborator in Puerto Rico, said the project uses cutting-edge science to support students and educators in the application of interdisciplinary and multi-institutional approaches in the geosciences.

“The collaborative participation of community organizations and higher education institutions, including colleges that traditionally serve underserved populations, is the foundation for the decoloniality of the project,” he said. “The intentional representation and contributions of experts and facilitators who are members of underserved communities, as they lead project activities and teach, has the potential to be transformative within traditional science education contexts. This is one of the aspects that excites me the most.”

Dr. Sharon Paynter, ECU’s acting chief research and engagement officer, called the project transformative.

“ECU faculty researchers make a difference in classrooms, labs and communities across the globe,” she said. “This innovative project has strong potential for broad societal impact and is another example of the experiential learning that happens at ECU. Engaging students on research teams will ultimately help ensure their success as critical members of the 21st-century workforce.”

Manda, in a purple cap, and his graduate students evaluate a salt-impacted agricultural field in Hyde County. (Photo by Diana Rashash)