Program Primes Students to Tackle Real-World Urban Sustainability Issues

Recent graduate students participating in the INFEWS program

As the academic year has drawn to a close the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship – Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS) program at UCLA is looking back on their work to not only train a new generation of graduate students but also provide a unique experience in solving food, energy, and water system challenges in urban centers.

The five-year $3 million dollar grant has worked to fill a critical void in the workforce — helping urban centers thrive under the pressures of global climate change.

Led by Laurent Pilon, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the initiative has given over 60 students training in research, education, and communication with supported expertise from numerous units across campus.

“We educate the INFEWS scholars to solve societal problems via integrated urban solutions,” said Pilon. “We want their story to be told to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers to join their future efforts.”

A multidisciplinary perspective

INFEWS is built on bringing together not only students but also a diverse and interdisciplinary team of UCLA faculty to train and mentor each year’s program cohort of graduate students.

Among the campus units participating are the California NanoSystems Institute, Samueli School of Engineering, UCLA College, the Graduate Division, the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, UCLA Extension, the Luskin School of Public Affairs, and the Fielding School of Public Health.

This multidisciplinary focus is what attracted recent INFEWS participant, Bineh Ndefru, a 4th year PhD student in materials science and engineering.

Ndefru was drawn to the program for the opportunity to add not only depth but breadth to her research and to connect with others sharing her research interests across the UCLA campus.

“I am a materials scientist, but I am passionate about energy and climate issues and the intersection of technology and society,” said Ndefru. “INFEWS seemed like a great opportunity to engage with work and conversations about these issues more directly.”

Students in the program work in the classroom and obtain hands-on training focusing on urban systems; waste reduction and upscaling; urban sustainability; and integrated solutions for food, energy and water systems management that can be implemented in Los Angeles and beyond.

For Ndefru, the opportunity to tour firsthand several different organizations in Los Angeles provided a new perspective on how her research might contribute to these systems working better for everyone, not just in LA.

Growing up in Cameroon, West Africa, many of her family members rely on farming for their livelihood and have experienced the negative impacts of climate change, from droughts to climate-induced violence and mass displacement.

“My understanding of the world from this perspective led me to think about sustainability and resource management in a global way,” Ndefru said. “As a result, I’m interested in contributing to development and quality of life improvements that are concurrent with sustainable energy practices, resilience, and disaster risk mitigation.”

Learning the other sides of science

Besides a multidisciplinary perspective on sustainability and climate change, INFEWS scholars also are provided opportunities to look at public policy work, communications and even entrepreneurship. These tools and resources are often an important aspect of any actionable change.

INFEWS scholars also go into the field to learn about sustainability efforts in the Los Angeles region through site visits of the LA Department of Water and Power’s Aqueducts, Port of LA, LA Cleantech Incubator while also learning more about sustainability efforts and research at UCLA.

For Onja Davidson, a 3rd year PhD student in civil and environmental engineering, these aspects drew her to the program to further her knowledge about sustainability and give a better understanding of the challenges faced by diverse communities in urban areas.

“I was surrounded by amazing and passionate students and faculty in Public Policy, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Urban Planning among others who rekindled my curiosity about how vulnerable communities especially indigenous people, minorities groups, and low-income families tend to have, for example, inadequate access to healthy food or more exposed to air and water pollution,” said Davidson.

Davidson found the faculty mentorship and presentations about all aspects of the scientific journey to be most informative in thinking of her future career.

“They gave us advice for our Ph.D., and beyond which was really inspiring.”

Solving problems, together

The combined wisdom and passion of INFEWS faculty and students has created a catalyst of belief that they can solve hard problems, together. For Stephanie Kawecki, a 4th year PhD student bioengineering student, science is a way to solve those problems facing our world.

“Developing solutions to improve our environment is a multidisciplinary effort,” said Kawecki. “I learned that I need to consider different perspectives and angles when approaching a problem, and also learned that I need to find effective ways to communicate my work to a broader audience.”

Finding likeminded colleagues, Kawecki also points to the difference having female role models in STEM has made through the INFEWS program.

“I’ve always had a huge passion for science but experienced self-doubt on how I could personally contribute to the field. Looking back, I feel this was potentially due to the lack of female role models in STEM that I had growing up. Having female role models at INFEWS has opened my eyes to the opportunities available to me.”

Numbers to be proud of

Looking at the program’s numbers, 67% of INFEWS program scholars over the past five years have been female, which is much higher than the national figure of women in the STEM workforce, which sits at 28% according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020 report.

According to Claudia Defaz, Program Manager for INFEWS, those are numbers to be proud of.

“Our students are motivated by working on issues that are relevant to the communities they come from or that they live in,” Defaz said. “They enjoy working on projects in state-of-the-art facilities and equipment to learn from one another and from UCLA’s world-class scholars.”

Changing the world for years to come

Future research leaders, such as Ivy Kwok, a 2nd year PhD student, civil and environmental engineering, know the importance of INFEWS in connecting student researchers and arming them with the resources to be successful in making sustainable change.

“I hope to become an environmental engineering research professor to combine my passions for sustainability and mentorship. I would love to inspire others to not only pursue a more sustainable lifestyle but also continue learning ways to sustainably solve problems in our society and help make this a better world for everyone.”

Ricardo Martinez, a 1st year PhD student in mechanical engineering, agrees the experience has changed him for the better.

“The greatest impact has been connecting my research to sustainability,” Martinez said. “This program has helped me be more mindful in my daily life in regard to what I can do to bring about change.”

For Pilon and Defaz, their hope is that the INFEWS program won’t cease to train the future generation of scientists and engineers who will contribute to making food/energy/water systems better for a global population.

“We have achieved our goals of training the 60+ INFEWS scholars in performing world class research that addresses major societal problems. We also trained them in team building, science communication, career development, and more. Through our innovative field lab course, we explored the inner working of food, energy, and water supplies in the second largest city in the U.S. ,” said Pilon. “But we don’t want to stop here. UCLA is a world-class research institution well-positioned to undertake new challenges and develop ground breaking solutions not only for Los Angeles but also for the rest of the world.”

INFEWS is funded by NSF NRT: Graduate Traineeship in Integrated Urban Solutions for Food, Energy, and Water Management (INFEWS)–DGE-1735325 and the California NanoSystems Institute.

For Pilon and Defaz, their hope is that the INFEWS program won’t cease to train the future generation of scientists and engineers who will contribute to making food/energy/water systems better for a global population.

“We have achieved our goals of training the 60+ INFEWS scholars in scientific knowledge and skills, workforce development, professional skills, and institutional capacity,” said Pilon. “But we don’t want to stop here. UCLA is a world-class research institution in the second-largest city in the U.S. We are well-positioned to undertake new challenges and develop innovative solutions toward a sustainable city that can serve as a template for others.” 

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