A garden on top of a roof with city buildings surrounding it
Urban agriculture is among the areas of focus for the Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment. (Getty Images)

VCU launches Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment

The institute will help faculty from across the university work on projects that address the climate change crisis.

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Researchers from across Virginia Commonwealth University came together last week to celebrate the launch of the Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment (ISEE).

ISEE was created over the summer as part of an initiative to fund six new research hubs for the university. VCU now has 16 university-wide research institutes and centers. The goal of ISEE is to address the existential threat of climate change by creating sustainable energy systems and sustainable ecologies, while educating students and working with community partners to meet these challenges.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said participants in the institute will be focused on “people whose voices typically are not heard.”

“They will absolutely be committed to innovation and innovations that will improve the quality of human life, the quality of the human experience,” Rao said.

The new institute was created as part of the One VCU Research Strategic Priorities Plan and its initiative to support sustainable energies and environments. The plan is part of the new strategic plan for VCU and VCU Health called Quest 2028: One VCU Together We Transform.

Puru Jena, Ph.D., distinguished professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the inaugural director of the ISEE, said the institute’s work will be urgently needed.

"We have an obligation to see how we can [transition] from the energy that causes all these problems to a clean energy," Jena said.

Jesse Goldstein, Ph.D., associate director of the Environmental Humanities Lab at the Humanities Research Center, said his group and the ISEE already have launched an environmental transdisciplinary research incubator that involves 38 participants from across the university, including participants from the College of EngineeringL. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairsthe School of BusinessSchool of the Artsthe College of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Education.

Daeha Joung, Ph.D., assistant professor of experimental biophysics and experimental nanosciences, who is participating in ISEE, said he was excited about the center’s multidisciplinary nature. Joung’s current research focuses on 3D printing functional materials and devices.

“I'm excited to really get together, to work together and apply some big projects,” Joung said.

Goldstein said four main clusters have formed in ISEE around interdisciplinary research interests. One project is using a social network mapping approach to investigate the social and political dimensions of urban green spaces. Another is about urban agricultural spaces.

“So, how minority-led agricultural projects in the city create these vibrant social and ecological systems,” Goldstein said. “It's a project to investigate how these minority-led urban agricultural spaces operate and how, through a community-led research project, we can help them grow and mature and strengthen their role.”

The third project is an adventure playground, which is a play space that gives young people a chance to engage in less structured ways with their environment and to have a different way to connect with what it means to play. The final project is the Circular Economy Hub, which involves participants from engineering, the social sciences, policy and humanities.

“That is a project that has a lot to do with commodity chains – where materials come from, the social and environmental cost of materials,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein said creating spaces such as the ISEE that take scholarship seriously gives faculty members a chance to partner as researchers and thinkers.

While one of the ultimate goals of the new institute is funded research, Goldstein said the fact ISEE is already bringing people together is a success to him.

“I'm seeing art education and engineering scholars meeting each other and [going] ‘Oh my God, we have so much in common,’” he said. “That's awesome.”