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Undergraduate and Graduate Studies

Physics faculty win UCOP grant for Coronavirus research

January 14, 2021
Many of UC Merced's researchers will be part of UC-funded projects with colleagues at other campuses.

Two new projects designed and led by UC Merced researchers will address challenges facing many Californians — wildfire recovery and agricultural labor — but will also have global reach.

Both are funded through the University of California’s prestigious Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI) Awards. In addition to these two projects, six UC Merced faculty members are co-primary investigators on projects led by other UC campuses and about a dozen more UC Merced faculty members are participating in the eight MRPI-supported projects.

Awarded every two years, the highly competitive MRPI program seeks to leverage the world-renowned research capabilities of the UC system to develop real-world solutions to significant problems facing the state and the world.

This year’s competition garnered 94 proposals that spanned the breadth of UC’s expertise, from computer science and particle physics to anthropology and human rights. Fifteen projects — totaling $19 million — were selected based on their compelling approaches to advancing research areas that are important to UC and the state.

“The MRPI competition funds discoveries that improve the lives of Californians and draws world-class student, faculty and staff talent to the University,” said UC President Michael V. Drake, M.D. “UC programs like this help keep California at the forefront of breakthrough research and technological innovation.”

Civil & Environmental Engineering Professor Tom Harmon, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, leads the $3.1 million, four-year Labor and Automation in California Agriculture (LACA) team, an interdisciplinary group comprising UCs Merced, Berkeley, Davis and Riverside, as well as UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR).

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of agricultural labor and smart farming technology,” Harmon said. “California is an agriculturally diverse and productive state, and yet its food system is vulnerable to climate change, regulatory change, water availability and unexpected disturbances. Agricultural workforce shortages are also negatively affecting our food system.”

By partnering with farmers, workers, environmentalists and agriculturalists, LACA aims to create a new model for agricultural technology that is farmer- and worker-friendly while enhancing productivity and environmental sustainability.

“It won’t take away jobs, but it will require new skill sets, such as data analysis and working alongside automation, which will open up new and equitable career paths,” Harmon explained. “The future of California agriculture is less about back-breaking labor and more about enhancing productivity and quality, while creating a more work-friendly, resilient and sustainable agri-food system.”

The LACA team features professors Joshua Viers, Colleen Naughton, Stefano Carpin , Erin Hestir and Josue Medellin-Azuara, as well as researcher Tapan Pathak at ANR. The project has four interwoven research thrusts: AgTech, developing novel stationary and robotic systems; The Environment, creating new sustainability tools and functions; Labor, examining the future of farm work, barriers to technology adoption and the California farm-labor markets; and Underlying and Emerging Issues, strategically addressing key policy and legal issues, agroeconomic, and social issues that LACA must consider while creating a new AgTech-Labor model.

“I am so proud of our success in being selected to be part of more than half of the winning MRPI proposals, and to be leads on two of the projects. This is a major step forward for UC Merced and further demonstrates that we are now to be counted among the top tier of major research universities.”

Interim Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Marjorie Zatz

Management of Complex Systems Professor Crystal Kolden is the other MRPI lead investigator, and her $808,000 project addresses prevention and recovery efforts in California communities that are doubly vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

The increasingly large and intense wildfires California deals with each year put millions of residents at risk for significant damages, economic losses and deaths. While scientists can better identify wildfire risks across the state, fire professionals and planners do not know if planning and recovery efforts are reaching Californians who are both socio-economically disadvantaged and live or work in high-risk areas.

“Many studies look at disaster-preparedness in urban areas, but few of them examine disadvantaged communities in the outskirts of urban areas and rural areas, where there’s a substantial reliance on agriculture,” Kolden said. “But it’s important to address these communities because disadvantaged groups are historically underrepresented during planning, and wildfire mitigation and resilience relies on the entire community’s participation.”

Kolden and colleagues at UCLA and Berkeley will work with organizations representing vulnerable communities and tribal groups to develop a spatial database of doubly vulnerable communities; a mixed-methods assessment of pre-fire planning and post-fire recovery; and develop an interactive, Web-based toolkit for communities, agencies and nonprofits to support and empower doubly vulnerable populations.

“I am incredibly excited to see the research that will result from these awards. The proposals were amazing and promise to significantly improve our responses to major environmental and other societal issues confronting the Central Valley, and indeed the world,” said interim Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Marjorie Zatz. “I am so proud of our success in being selected to be part of more than half of the winning MRPI proposals, and to be leads on two of the projects. This is a major step forward for UC Merced and further demonstrates that we are now to be counted among the top tier of major research universities.”

Both Harmon and Kolden are with the School of Engineering, but UC Merced faculty participating in 2020 MRPI projects span all three schools, including the School of Natural Sciences and many institutes and centers, including the Center for Cellular and Biomolecular Machines, the Health Sciences Research Institute and the Center for the Humanities .

In addition to Harmon’s and Kolden’s, here are the other UC Merced-involved projects:

  • Computer science Professor Shawn Newsam is a co-PI on the California Informatics for Equitable Disaster Response and Recovery project. The project aims to develop well-being metrics to inform early decision-making processes following natural hazards, such as earthquakes and floods, to advance the ability to recognize diversity in social vulnerability, which drives the extent to which certain communities are burdened with losses and their ability to recover in a timely manner.
  • Public health Professor Sidra Goldman-Mellor is a co-PI and will work with professors Andrew Johnston, Jessica Trounstine, Melissa Sands and Sandie Ha on the California Policy Lab project, developing data-driven solutions for some of California’s most complex issues, such as homelessness, poverty, criminal justice reform, education inequality and the future of work.
  • Chemistry professors Son Nguyen and Christine Isborn are co-PIs on the California Interfacial Science Initiative, which is designed to leverage novel experimental and theoretical capabilities for interfacial science and make these available to a large group of UC researchers. Research enabled by this project will provide new insights into environmental challenges relating to green energy production, waste reduction, energy storage and ocean cleaning, all of which are of pressing importance for the State of California as well as local industries.
  • Humanities Professor Arturo Arias, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Endowed Chair, is a co-PI on the Global Latinidades Project. Scholars will take Latinx studies beyond North America to examine the global reach and impact of Latinx people in Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as Central and South America. Spiritual and cultural transformations, along with human rights and political struggles in worldwide Latinx communities, will also be explored. These discoveries will inform new and existing Latinx studies courses, publications and community partnerships which will be featured in an important international conference.
  • School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts Dean Jeffrey Gilger is a co-PI on the Living Through Upheaval project, a humanities initiative that includes research intended to address momentous changes facing human existence and culture, such as how people understand what constitutes contemporary modes of truth; the social and environmental impacts of massive demographic shifts; and, as artificial intelligence and robotics evolve, how the distinctively “human” features of human beings change. This project supports the Centers for the Humanities on all UC campuses.
  • Physics professors Ajay Gopinathan  and Linda Hirst and chemistry Professor Michael Colvin are working on the UC Coronavirus Assembly Research Consortium, with Gopinathan as the co-PI. To understand how COVID-19 assembles itself into a viable virus, experts in biophysics, computer science and medicine will conduct experiments and computer simulations that have never before been performed on this virus. This knowledge can propel development of drug therapies that slow or destroy the virus.
  • Incoming Life and Environmental Sciences Professor Marilia Gaiarsa is part of a grant to strengthen honeybee health and crop pollination to safeguard food availability and affordability.

Since 2009, the University has made more than 100 MRPI grants totaling $139 million and involving more than 600 UC faculty members. To be eligible, applications must draw on talent from multiple areas of study representing a minimum of three UC institutions.

Information about all 2021 research award winners is on the Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives website.