Clark University receives $1.4 million grant for coastal zone research

Worcester, MA: Clark University has received a $1,442,930 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of research on suburbanization and its effects on coastal watershed areas. The research project is titled "Suburbanization, Water Use, Nitrogen Cycling, and Eutrophication in the 21st Century: Interactions, Feedbacks, and Uncertainties in a Massachusetts Coastal Zone." The research is expected to provide novel insights into these processes that are so vital to the environment and inhabitants of rapidly growing coastal areas. Fieldwork and process-based modeling will be used to characterize and explain these dynamics.

The study area comprises 26 Massachusetts towns of the Ipswich and Parker River watersheds. Suburbanizing watershed-estuary systems such as those in the area under study constitute a pressing national challenge for coastal zone managers and land owners. The researchers will break new ground by examining the human and environment systems in the study area as a coupled system rather than independent structures.

The NSF award is effective Sept. 15, 2007 and will expire in February 2012. It is the second largest grant to a faculty research project at Clark.

"Clark is delighted to have such support from the National Science Foundation for the University's work in coastal environmental sustainability," said Clark University President John Bassett. "This project will greatly further scientific understanding and enhance human management of this state's precious coastal resources. It holds vital implications for growing coastal communities everywhere."

Colin Polsky, left, and Robert Gilmore Pontius Jr.

Clark researchers include Colin Polsky, Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Geography and George Perkins Marsh Institute, who is Principal Investigator of the grant. Co-PIs include Robert Gilmore Pontius Jr., Clark University Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Geography and George Perkins Marsh Institute, and the Department of International Development, Community & Environment; Charles S. Hopkinson, of the Marine Biological Laboratory; and Wilfred Wollheim and Charles J. Vorosmarty, both of the University of New Hampshire.

"This NSF award is an outstanding opportunity for Clark University to contribute to basic knowledge of coupled human-environment systems dynamics," Polsky said. "Doing that means understanding how people are affecting the environment and how they are responding to those effects now, and then projecting those dynamics into the future. The award is also a platform for us to advance the methodological frontiers of doing such research, as we will be integrating fieldwork and modeling techniques from social science, geographic information science, and ecological science."

The research is an exemplar of Clark's interest in use-inspired and translational research in that the research promises to produce data and make findings available not only to an audience of scientists, but to end users such as suburban communities that are experiencing rapid changes associated with sprawling development. Programs of study and education will involve students at K-12, BA, MA, Ph.D.*, and postdoctoral levels. The research leaders are committed to continuing their successes engaging students from underrepresented groups, Polsky notes, and results will be conveyed directly to relevant federal and state agencies, to national, regional, and local land and water planning organizations and advocacy groups, and to elected officials. An end-of-project stakeholder symposium is planned—likely to be one of the first regional gatherings of such a broad cross-section of stakeholders.

Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA) lauded the grant and Clark University's work in sustainability science. "I'm very pleased that the National Science Foundation is recognizing the incredible work being done at Clark University," Rep. McGovern said.  "As we continue to try to manage growth smartly and efficiently, it is vital that local communities have access to the best research into the interplay between development and the environment.  This is especially true along our sensitive coastal areas. I'm especially proud that Clark has become such a nationally recognized leader in environmental research."

Both undergraduate and graduate students in Clark's Human-Environment Regional Observatory-Central Massachusetts (HERO-CM), as well as students at the Marine Biological Laboratory and UNH, will participate in the project, gaining crucial research experience in the emerging field of sustainability science. The HERO-MA program provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to analyze the causes and consequences of global environmental changes at local scales in faculty-led research projects. This program permits students to conduct research in interdisciplinary and inter-institutional projects. Current HERO research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Thoreau Foundation, George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark, and the O’Connor ‘78 Endowment.


*The grant includes funding for graduate research assistants with skills in Social Science, Computer Science, Geographic Information Science, Geography, and Ecology. Those who wish to become a graduate research assistant (Fall 2008) are encouraged to apply to Clark University's PhD program in Geography or one of its Masters programs in IDCE. Contact Colin Polsky ( or Robert Gilmore Pontius Jr. (