Revamped USC Hotel Garden provides fresh produce to campus restaurants

Just around the corner from the bustle of Figueroa Street, in an alley behind the USC Hotel, chef Keith Shutta picks a ripe cherry tomato off the vine and pops it in his mouth. As he scans the rest of the tomatoes on the vine, he chews a bit before he tilts his head back and smiles.

“Oh, you can’t beat that,” he says. “You can taste the sweetness, the acidity — it tastes like how a tomato is supposed to taste.”

USC Assignment: Earth logo

The urban setting of USC’s University Park Campus is the last place someone would expect fresh-from-the-vine produce, and Shutta cherishes every bite. It’s an experience that he — as a USC executive chef — has been waiting for.

These tomatoes are part of the revamped USC Hotel Garden, which features dozens of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Compared to its predecessor, which grew produce hydroponically — using a water-based nutrient solution rather than soil — the new garden uses significantly less water. As part of USC’s commitment to cut water usage 20 percent by 2028, outlined in one of USC President Carol L. Folt’s “moonshots,” the new garden is a sustainable way to provide produce for campus restaurants, cafes and bars.

“Any time a chef has an opportunity to have a garden, you can’t pass it up,” Shutta says.

USC Hotel Garden origins and early design

The original USC Hotel Garden launched in 2016 to provide fresh produce to campus restaurants and catering services. That hydroponic garden featured 60 towers, with a weekly yield of 700 produce items from just a portion of the towers.

“Originally, it was phenomenal to look at, with the 60 towers in rows,” said Dirk De Jong, assistant vice president of USC Hospitality and USC Hotel.

“People wanted to host events in the garden, or even just see what we had built because they were interested in the hydroponic towers.”

In March 2020, the hydroponic garden was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but De Jong said other reasons like low output and high water usage also contributed to the garden’s closure.

When USC campuses opened back up to students in the fall of 2021, De Jong said, this presented a great opportunity to create a completely new organic garden with chef and farmer input.

De Jon noted that when Folt arrived at USC in 2019, “one of the first places she wanted to see was the garden, and she’s been championing its return.”

USC Garden 2.0

To design the university’s revamped garden, USC partnered with Farmscape, a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in sustainable urban gardens. From there, USC Hotel replaced the space where the hydroponic towers sat with a wooden patio fitted with 15 planters of various sizes filled with locally sourced organic soil.

“When we used to have the towers, we couldn’t grow stuff like this hydroponically, or at least it was difficult because it’s such a small seedling,” Shutta said. “Now that we have the actual plants in actual soil, we can grow a lot more.”

The garden launched this summer, but USC Private Events & Conferences will host an official reopening Oct. 12.

As part of the upgrades, USC Hospitality also redesigned the space to be even better suited for outdoor events at the garden. The event space at the USC Garden can comfortably accommodate 60 people for a seated lunch or dinner or up to 100 people for a reception.

For the spring/summer season, the garden will feature three citrus trees — mandarin, oro blanco grapefruit and cara cara orange — along with two passion fruit vines, scallions, heirloom tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, zucchini, shishito and jalapeno peppers, Swiss chard, bronze fennel and English lavender. A separate herb garden yields basil, parsley, sage, thyme, oregano and chives.

Some of the fall crops will stay the same, with the new additions including kale; sugar snap peas; butter, romaine and Little Gem lettuce; and various root crops like radishes, turnips and carrots.

“We’re trying to work a season or semester ahead, so by the end of November we’ll have our spring menu set and by the end of spring we’ll have the fall menu ready,” De Jong said. “It’s our way of ensuring the freshest produce aligns with our seasonal menus.”

Creating a healthier, greener campus and community

Aside from providing produce and cutting down on water-usage, the USC Garden also shows what’s possible when people care about their food. There’s a certain pride that comes with growing your own food in your own backyard, and both Shutta and De Jong hope this shows what can be accomplished in the most unlikely of settings.

“We want to show that you don’t need a whole lot of space,” De Jong said. “This is not a large area we’re in, but we’re still able to produce a good amount of food, as long as it’s done the right way.”

“We’re not UC Davis with a lot of land, but I think we can still showcase that you don’t need to be in an agricultural area to grow things.”

For Shutta, the garden is a way for others to see fresh produce as he and other chefs do.

“If you grow your own produce, not everything is going to have a perfect shape or look like it does in the store,” Shutta said.

“It may look phenomenal, but it tends to be watery and tastes processed. But when you go to something like a farmers market, a tomato may have a blemish or something like that, and people think there’s something wrong. No, that’s real growing — that’s real food.”

Contact USC Private Events to plan a future event in the garden.

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Celebrating the newly named Thomas Lord Department of Computer Science

USC celebrated the naming of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Thomas Lord Department of Computer Science on the University Park Campus on Friday. The naming gift is part of Frontiers of Computing, a $1 billion-plus, multiyear initiative that unites USC’s leadership in computing research and education. The department will be housed within the initiative’s newly announced USC School of Advanced Computing. A new LEED Platinum-certified building for computer science at USC, the Dr. Allen and Charlotte Ginsburg Human-Centered Computation Hall, is scheduled to open in the spring. USC President Carol L. Folt launched Frontiers of Computing — the largest, most comprehensive academic initiative in USC’s history — with a $260 million gift from the Lord Foundation of California.

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Is green hydrogen the fuel of the future?

As the world seeks alternatives to fossil fuels, scientists are looking to hydrogen as a promising source of clean fuel. Unlike gasoline, which releases carbon dioxide when burned, hydrogen combustion produces only water vapor, making it a clean and environmentally friendly alternative. More often, hydrogen is converted to water and electricity in a fuel cell, as in the Toyota Mirai. It is already being used in this way to fuel zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and has long been used by NASA to send rockets into space.

As the most abundant element on Earth, hydrogen has the potential to transform many of the sectors that power our world, from transportation and utilities to biofuels, fertilizers and environmentally benign chemicals. However, the high cost and logistical complexity of physically transporting hydrogen present cost barriers that we all have to pay for in the cost of our electricity, fuels and foods.

Travis Williams, a chemist at the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, is tackling this challenge head-on by developing a “hydrogen on-demand” reactor that promises to simplify and cost-effectively revolutionize the transportation of hydrogen. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy recognized Williams’ groundbreaking technology as one of five pivotal achievements in recent hydrogen research history.

“The current cost of hydrogen is mostly driven by the expense of compressing and delivering it. Our reactor essentially delivers high-pressure hydrogen when and where you need it, allowing users to convert it into energy or other products without producing any pollution,” said Williams, who is also a professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Our goal is to make hydrogen more accessible and economical as a clean energy source, and this technology is a major step forward.”

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Harnessing the power of green hydrogen

Green hydrogen refers to hydrogen gas produced through a process that uses renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar or hydropower, to extract hydrogen from water or other sustainable feedstocks. This production method is considered “green” because it generates minimal or no greenhouse gas emissions, making it an eco-friendly alternative to conventional hydrogen production methods, which often rely on fossil fuels.

The cleanest process for producing green hydrogen is called electrolysis, in which an electric current is passed through water to split it into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The electricity used in this process can come from renewable sources, ensuring that the overall carbon footprint of the hydrogen production is very low or even zero.

In addition to being 100% sustainable, green hydrogen is easy to store and incredibly versatile. It can effectively supplement intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind, addressing the gaps in their reliability. The U.S. Department of Energy expects that green hydrogen, generated from these sources, will eventually displace natural gas-based hydrogen, generated by methane steam reforming, ultimately to eliminate the carbon footprint of the hydrogen industry.

Hydrogen’s uses are vast. In addition to applications in transportation, hydrogen is a key ingredient in a range of industrial processes including petroleum refining, metal treatment, fertilizer production and food processing.

However, due to hydrogen’s high reactivity and flammability, regulatory authorities have established stringent pressure and purity standards. Meeting these standards can be particularly challenging, especially when producing hydrogen for use in vehicles.

“To meet specs for vehicle filling, you have to compress the gas to a certain pressure. The cost of running the compressor ends up being almost equal to the cost of the hydrogen itself for cars, which contributes to some of the affordability problems we’re seeing in hydrogen production today,” said Williams.

“Our reactor is designed to operate effectively at high pressure, and the chemical reaction generates sufficient energy for self-pressurization, eliminating the need for expensive compressors,” he added.

The reactor also transports hydrogen in a more affordable liquid form known as formic acid, which can then be transported to the desired location and converted back into hydrogen. This transformative technology allows for the seamless mobility of hydrogen, ensuring it can be readily converted into a usable form wherever and whenever it is needed.

In California, hydrogen is taking off and USC tech can help bring it to market

While electric cars powered by lithium-ion batteries dominate the landscape of zero-emission vehicles, hydrogen FCEVs are on the road, too — especially in California. In recent years, the Golden State has doubled down on its investment in hydrogen infrastructure. California currently hosts 57 of the 58 hydrogen fueling stations nationwide, with the only exception in Hawaii.

“For a long time, there has been a debate about the ideal role of electric vehicles, particularly in urban areas like L.A. The aim has always been to reduce gas vehicle usage due to emissions, and hydrogen vehicles were seen as a solution if we could establish the necessary refueling infrastructure,” Williams said.

“If you combine lithium-ion batteries with a liquid or gaseous hydrogen carrier, you can significantly enhance fuel range. Our reactor can help make that happen,” Williams said, adding that the chemistry of these carriers can store much more energy compared to solid-state batteries.

While FCEVs are important, most hydrogen is used for liquid fuels and fine chemicals. California is also taking on sustainable aviation and, last year, marked a major milestone with the announcement of a $2 billion expansion project at the World Energy sustainable aviation fuel facility in Paramount, Calif. This adds to the facility’s current capacity to refine renewable diesel fuel. The facility is the largest of its kind in North America and is poised to become a global hub for hydrogen-powered diesel and jet fuel production as well, so long as it can get enough hydrogen. Renewable fuels manufacturing is emerging as one of the largest uses for on-demand hydrogen generation. This is an opportunity where Williams sees important impact potential for emerging USC technology.

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Historic venue points the way to a sustainable future

The iconic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has always been ahead of the curve. Its 1923 debut announced L.A. as a global city, and in the next century it hosted two Olympics; the Super Bowl; the World Series; world leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela; several U.S. presidents; and hundreds of USC football games.

Today, it’s a living laboratory for sustainability. In just seven years, the Coliseum’s green team has made the stadium’s zero waste program one of the most consistently excellent operations of its kind in the nation. In August, the California Resource Recovery Association awarded the Coliseum its Outstanding Practices in Venue/Event Resource Recovery Award for the second time. It’s also been named the Pac-12 Zero Waste Champion for football three times.

And the USC-managed venue is Exhibit A in a new course focused on zero waste events taught by Monalisa Chatterjee of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The class is a key peg in the university’s Assignment: Earth goal of increasing educational opportunities tied to sustainability.

“This class will provide students with an opportunity to learn about the challenges and potential of holding zero waste events,” said Chatterjee, an associate professor of environmental studies. “We have the advantage of using the Coliseum to learn about the preparation, auditing and follow-up waste management that goes into holding such events.”

During the 2022 football season, the zero waste program averaged a 91.7% diversion rate, preventing 66 tons of waste from entering landfill. Those same zero waste standards are in place for every major event hosted at the Coliseum.

“Achieving 90% waste diversion is a challenge we are prepared to tackle, with protocols in place to ensure we push past that number,” said Christopher Kalaw, sustainability assistant at the Coliseum. “We have dedicated staff that care about making the environment a better place, so we feel supported and motivated.”

Coliseum sustainability operations nearing a decade of diverting waste

Zero waste efforts at the Coliseum began in 2016, but they received a substantial boost with the 2019 arrival of USC President Carol L. Folt, who has made sustainability a cornerstone of her tenure. As the venue enters its second century, additional eco-friendly measures are in the works.

“We learned early on that sustainability, and a zero waste goal, was not something we could do just one time a year to win a trophy; we needed to adopt policies year-round, and from top-to-bottom in our organization, to be effective,” said Joe Furin, general manager of the Coliseum. “Our success in achieving zero waste illustrated what is possible, even in a 100-year-old, iconic stadium. We are committed to exploring other areas of our operations — the elimination of single use plastic bottles for example — where we can make similar impacts in sustainability.”

Matthew Buswell, director of operations at the Coliseum, said the lights in each of the 28 street level tunnels — 168 in total — will soon be replaced with LED fixtures. Other changes include vendors providing reusable cups for beverages during events.

Looking forward, the operations staff will continue to look for ways to further improve sustainability before 2028, when the Coliseum will serve as one of the venues for the Olympics for the third time.

“We’re constantly looking for new ways we can optimize our operations,” Buswell said. “As we look forward to the Olympics, we’re not sure what they will require from us, but we will be proactive to make sure we can meet their needs in a way that is right for the Coliseum.”

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USC celebrates new Sustainability Hub in the heart of the University Park Campus

USC celebrated the opening of its new Sustainability Hub on the University Park Campus on Wednesday. The 1,500-square-foot hub is a collaborative, inclusive and multiuse gathering space for advancing sustainability at USC. It also serves as the home of Assignment: Earth, USC’s framework to ensure that the university remains at the forefront of sustainability operations, research and education. The festivities are part of the university’s observation of Green Week, which runs through Saturday.

Check back Thursday for more on the Sustainability Hub.




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Eco-grief is real — here’s what you can do about it

The visuals accompanying climate change are hard to ignore: communities engulfed in flames, neighborhoods submerged by floods, habitats like coral reefs — once teeming with life and vibrance — now bleached, brittle and barren.

Experts warn of a parallel crisis, hidden from sight but no less important. Climate change is wreaking havoc on our collective mental health and well-being.

“Climate anxiety,” “eco-grief” and even “solastalgia” are terms being used to describe the overwhelming feelings of fear, despair and despondency that come with bearing witness to the natural world’s suffering. The constant stream of distressing news, coupled with the uncertainty of the future, can lead to heightened stress and a deep sense of loss, according to experts.

USC experts, guided by the university’s Assignment: Earth goals and informed by cutting-edge research in sustainability and environmental justice, are actively working to support individuals and communities in navigating all aspects of the climate crisis.

“Severe weather events are upending people’s lives and well-being — they are taking loved ones, decimating people’s homes and livelihoods, and leaving our neighborhoods unrecognizable in their wake — each of which has real and lasting health consequences,” said Emily Smith-Greenaway, an associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“But perhaps what is even more concerning is that after the initial disaster abates — and the news crews pack up to move on to cover the next weather event — we know that the health impacts of these events can linger and even accumulate with time,” she said. “This makes it difficult for both ordinary people to fully appreciate, and scientists to track empirically, the true toll that climate change is having on our population’s health and well-being.”

Eco-grief makes it harder for communities to prepare for natural disasters

Experts underscore the importance of recognizing and alleviating the emotional strain of climate change on communities. Santina Contreras, an expert in community-engaged environmental planning and an associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, explained that communities around the world are angry and exhausted from having to prepare for multiple disasters at the same time, like the “hurriquake” that recently hit Southern California.

It can be so overwhelming that people disengage entirely, making it even harder to prepare for future disasters, she said.

“That’s why we need to work directly with communities to understand their needs before and after disasters,” Contreras said. “We have amazing science to help find solutions, but if it is disconnected from the people that are experiencing these issues firsthand, then there is still so much we don’t know unless we talk to them.”

How to cope, heal and turn eco-grief into climate action

To counter eco-grief, experts recommend tapping into the therapeutic benefits of engaging with nature.

“There is a growing movement to help people process their eco-grief and climate anxiety through cultivating a deeper personal relationship with nature and tending to nearby nature at the hyper-local level,” said Camille Dieterle, an expert in health and wellness who has led workshops on coping with eco-grief.

Dieterle recommends gardening at home or in a community garden, as well as learning about and getting involved in local initiatives to restore land and habitats to help cope with eco-grief.

Interacting with nature is calming in and of itself.

Camille Dieterle, USC Chan Division

“Interacting with nature is calming in and of itself, and there is the added layer of feeling a sense of contribution to current problems,” said Dieterle, an assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy at the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

Civic engagement is also a powerful tool to redirect climate anxiety into meaningful experiences that offer a sense of hope, according to experts. Online spaces can be especially helpful in connecting like-minded individuals and organizing collective actions.

“To feel less helpless, people may want to participate in climate politics, such as leaving comments in local or federal registers, calling elected officials about climate policies, and/or to showing up to virtual (or in-person) town halls where people address leaders,” said Christina Dunbar-Hester, an expert in tech-powered activism and professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“Logging off is always an option if one would feel better disconnecting for a while. The urgency of these issues and campaigns will still be there when you log back on,” she said.

USC provides a variety of resources for students, employees and parents to prepare for emergencies, take safety precautions, and find help and personal services. More information about support resources at USC is available online.

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USC’s first Sustainability Solutions postdocs help shape a greener future

USC’s first cohort of Presidential Sustainability Solutions Fellows have arrived on campus, ready to take on the planet’s multiple environmental crises through interdisciplinary research.

“This new program exemplifies the best of what USC can offer: convergent research with meaningful impact,” said Ishwar K. Puri, senior vice president of research and innovation. “These early career scholars are pairing different disciplines to explore and devise solutions for some of the most urgent climate change-related challenges faced by humankind. We’re excited that USC can offer them the research expertise and resources to fully investigate these questions.”

The five inaugural recipients of the new, two-year Presidential Sustainability Solutions Fellowship will pursue an inspiring array of research projects — from protecting salt marshes to promoting climate justice through video gaming. The appointments include two USC faculty mentors from different schools, dedicated programming, an annual salary, help with relocation expenses, funding for research and a budget to hire student researchers.

“We had an incredible array of applicants spanning diverse themes and disciplines who were reviewed by over 50 USC faculty, and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome this inaugural cohort,” said Colin Maclay, research professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the program’s founding director. “Beyond their individual projects, fellows will benefit from a USC-wide research colloquium, sessions to advance their professional practice and other opportunities to collaborate and engage with the USC community.”

The program marks progress on the research goals of the Assignment: Earth framework, introduced by President Carol L. Folt during Earth Month 2022 to ensure that USC remains at the forefront of sustainability operations, research and education.

Here’s a quick look at the scholars:

Katherine Baker: Seeking cultural buy-in for a reduction in meat consumption

Katherine Baker, who earned her doctorate at Cornell University, wants to help people reduce their meat consumption while staying true to their culture. Meat has one of the highest environmental footprints of any food source. But meat also holds a central role culturally.

“I want to find out how people would feel supported in reducing their meat intake,” Baker said. “People like meat for the taste and out of habit — but there’s a huge social component with social norms and what goes with that. Hopefully we can find a way to incentivize individuals that lets them make choices that work for them.”

During her fellowship, Baker will be working with Kayla de la Haye, an associate professor of population and public health science at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, who researches the role of community and social networks in promoting health eating and food security.

She’ll also be working with Wandi Bruine de Bruin, provost professor of public policy, psychology and behavioral science at the USC Price School of Public Policy. As director of the USC Behavioral Science and Well-Being Policy initiative, Bruine de Bruin seeks to understand how people make decisions about their personal health — a topic of great interest to Baker.

“It’s imperative to start thinking about sustainability and how we can help people eat a healthy diet that supports their lifestyle while also making sure we’re maintaining the health of the planet,” Baker said.

David Banuelas: Preserving salt marshes — powerhouses of carbon capture

David Banuelas, a sustainability fellow who recently earned his doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, will be researching the role of salt marshes in carbon capture. He has a special interest in a bacterium called Pelagibacterales, or SAR11, which feeds on dead organic matter to keep the ocean clean and clear.

Tidal salt marshes — such as the one in the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve near Irvine — account for 50% of carbon stored in ocean sediment. But with sea levels predicted to rise a meter by 2100, the vegetation that collects carbon from decomposed sea life will die off and convert to mudflats, releasing that stored carbon into the atmosphere.

Banuelas will be working with Cameron Thrash, associate professor of biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who studies the relationships between aquatic microorganisms and their environment. He’ll also be working with Felipe de Barros, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering who develops models that can simulate large hydrogeological ecosystems. The opportunity to pair biology and engineering attracted Banuelas to the postdoc program.

“If you have a model predicting how much carbon is in the ocean, we can predict how much vegetation we’ll need to offset that carbon in the salt marsh,” he said. “That’s where the engineering component comes in.

“We’re going to look at how we can manipulate the salt marsh of the future to keep up with carbon respiration rates in the bacteria. We want to make sure that restoration efforts are going to not only capture enough carbon to break even, but store more carbon so that there’s a positive effect.”

Matthew Coopilton: A window to a liberated future through video gaming

Sustainability fellow Matthew Coopilton is researching how video games, which can serve as miniature models of complex systems, might allow young people to imagine a sustainable future that promotes climate justice.

Kai UnEarthed is a game about young people in a future where fossil fuels have been abolished and they have a sustainable society,” Coopilton said. “There’s no longer institutional racism or heterosexism, but people are still healing from the damages of climate change in the water and air. It’s ecology education focused on Black liberation and Afrofuturist themes.”

Coopilton plans to finalize the game — begun while Coopilton was earning a USC doctorate — and will organize workshops where participants design their own games, prototyping futures rooted in climate justice. Coopilton will study how people learn in these environments.

Coopilton will continue to work with the USC School of Cinematic Arts professor TreaAndrea Russworm, whose expertise crisscrosses between video games, African American popular culture and postmodern theory. Coopilton also will be working with Gale Sinatra, professor of education and psychology at the USC Rossier School of Education, who studies how people learn about climate change.

“Games are a powerful medium because they’ve been shown to generally involve future-oriented thinking — when most of us play a game we tend to see what we can do and explore,” Coopilton said. “As an education psychologist, I’m interested in imagination and ‘What if?’ thinking. But I’m especially interested in what happens when the questions become ‘What if we phase out fossil fuels?’ or ‘What if we reduce the impact of pollution in Black neighborhoods?’ These are very powerful questions games can allow us to explore.”

Jason Niu: Extreme heat and air pollution are changing your cells

Zhongzheng “Jason” Niu wants to understand how exposure to heat and air pollution from an early age — even in the womb — may set off a chain reaction that could lead to aging-related diseases later in life.

“The weather in Southern California is getting increasingly hot — more and more heat waves with temperatures over 95 degrees — and I want to know how that would affect people’s health,” said Niu, who has been working as a researcher at Keck School of Medicine following earning his doctorate from the University at Buffalo. He recently co-authored a study detailing how air pollution can lead to gestational diabetes in pregnant women.

“We’re not looking at how many people might die in a heat wave. We’re looking under the skin to ask what are the cellular mechanisms that could explain heat’s detrimental effect on health, especially during vulnerable life stages, such as fetal life and during pregnancy.”

Research shows that heat and air pollution mark humans at a cellular level: The impact can be seen in the length of telomeres — code on either side of a genetic sequence which protects the functional genome — and the mitochondrial DNA copy number — or the amount of mitochondria DNA in each human cell. These two biomarkers are associated with aging-related diseases.

As a sustainability fellow, he’ll be collaborating with Carrie Breton, professor of environmental health at Keck School of Medicine to analyze health effects of heat waves and air pollution in the MADRES cohort, a predominantly low-income, Hispanic pregnancy and birth cohort in Los Angeles. He’ll also be working with Pinchas Cohen, dean and professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, whose discovery of the peptide humanin may pave the way to treatments against aging-related diseases.

“We want to assess whether humanin is actually in the middle of these genetic sequences to act as a buffer to protect the aging biomarkers from heat waves or air pollution,” Niu said. “We’re investigating what happens when people are exposed to heat and air pollution — if their biomarkers are poor, maybe they have a humanin level strong enough to protect. If that’s the case, humanin could be used as a supplement to protect people against future climate change.”

Anna Vinton: Machine learning meets Darwin

Climate change is forcing countless species to adapt to their environment or perish. Some, such as humans, may move to more suitable conditions. Others might change on a physical level to avoid extinction. After generations of adaptation, evolution may allow a species to better survive its surroundings.

Understanding what causes a species to successfully evolve is the focus of sustainability fellow Anna Vinton. She’s researched insects, squirrels, fish and birds, and, by applying mathematical models and machine learning, she can forecast how a species might react to rising temperatures, for instance. Now, she’ll apply her expertise to coral reefs.

“I’m interested in the interplay between these different types of adaptation because it’s an optimistic way of looking at ecology and evolution in the Anthropocene,” Vinton said. “It’s focusing on the scenarios in which these populations survive. When we’re thinking about coral reefs, we’re talking about some of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. This is a useful system to look at questions surrounding adaptation and generate information that we can use immediately.”

She’ll be working with Carly Kenkel, assistant professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife, who is an expert on coral reefs and their long-term survival. Vinton will also be working with Joe Arvai, director of the USC Dornsife Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability, to create frameworks to help guide stakeholders (such as fisheries, land managers, tourism and local communities) when facing complex ecological questions.

“The idea is to create a framework that allows us to handle all the uncertainty associated with human biases,” Vinton said. “When we make management decisions, we have all these biases that depend on who is making the decision. These frameworks help us to handle this uncertainty in consistent ways so that we can make recommendations for management action which takes into account different stakeholders.”

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Latest solar venture powers USC toward a greener future 


This summer, USC marked a major milestone in its sustainability efforts by adorning the rooftops of graduate student housing locations around the University Park Campus with state-of-the-art solar panels.


USC Assignment: Earth logoThis investment reduces the university’s dependency on the electrical grid and also propels it closer to achieving carbon neutrality by 2025, a key goal of the Assignment: Earth sustainability initiative.

The project kicked off in July, as cranes hoisted the giant panels atop the Windsor, Vista, Stardust and Seven Gables apartment complexes. Zelinda Welch, energy manager with USC Facilities Management Services, watched the project unfold from its inception.

“It’s inspiring to be a part of such a significant initiative that will leave a lasting positive impact on our campus and beyond,” she said. “Universities have a unique opportunity to inspire and empower the next generation of leaders by demonstrating our commitment to sustainable practices. Embracing renewable energy solutions, reducing our carbon footprint and setting ambitious sustainability goals send a powerful message about our dedication to a greener and more responsible future.”

USC solar panels generating plenty of clean energy

The solar panels will generate 64 megawatt hours of clean energy annually — equivalent to charging over 5.5 million smartphones or offsetting carbon emissions from 116,620 miles driven by cars each year. This reduction is comparable to the carbon captured by 752 tree seedlings growing for a decade or the ecological benefit of conserving 54.2 acres of forest.

In 2020, the university completed another solar venture at the Galen Center. The undertaking saw 1,500 solar modules covering a vast 50,000 square feet, marking USC’s most significant endeavor into solar energy at the time. This system now supplies up to 15% of the venue’s electricity.

“These solar projects move us closer toward achieving our Assignment: Earth goals, particularly our commitment to achieving climate neutrality by 2025,” said Mick Dalrymple, USC chief sustainability officer. “Embracing renewable energy is yet another part of USC’s determination to lead by example, tackling climate change and creating a brighter future for our students and community.”

USC solar panels: Interdepartmental collaboration

Facilities Planning and Management, USC Housing and the Office of Sustainability collaborated on the installation, which will be fully operational in the near future. One of the electrical meters is already online and the others are soon to follow.

“USC Housing is excited about the new solar panels and expanding this program to additional facilities,” said Chris Ponsiglione, director of USC Housing. “Building off what was started at our Sustainable Living Learning Community, we are increasing our contribution to USC being a more eco-friendly campus community.”

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What can Native American knowledge, and now AI, teach us about fire?

For centuries, Native American tribes used cultural and controlled burns to nurture healthy ecosystems. These deliberate, low-intensity fires helped maintain ecological balance in the region by reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires, promoting biodiversity and supporting the growth of native plant species and food sources.

Modern fire suppression policies and urban development disrupted these natural processes. The accumulation of overgrown underbrush — fire fuel — and the devastating impacts of climate change are making wildfires more frequent and severe across the West and around the world.

The recognition that controlled burning is a useful tool is rising, as it should.

William Deverell, USC professor

Policymakers are finally learning what Native American tribes have long understood: Fire can be good. And the evidence comes from an unlikely source: artificial intelligence.

“The recognition that controlled burning is a useful tool is rising, as it should,” said William Deverell, professor of history, spatial sciences and environmental studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Indigenous and community-based practices, ordinances and rules about fire mitigation, hardscaping, brush and other fuel removal, building material prohibitions — these are all good things in landscapes rendered vulnerable to wildfire. It is those practices, which are likely done best at the community and even neighborhood level, that will be case studies of effective responses to and after fire.”

California reconsiders its relationship with fire

California’s fire regulations, which evolved over time, have often mirrored the tension between traditional practices and modern firefighting approaches.

Last year, the state of California adopted a strategic plan for wildfire resilience with the goal of expanding prescribed burns to 400,000 acres annually by 2025. This initiative is a significant departure from complete fire suppression, an approach originally introduced by European settlers.

“This is a great example of contemporary law actively — finally — incorporating traditional Indigenous knowledge into modern resilience,” said Robin Craig, an expert in environmental law and the Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law at the USC Gould School of Law. “The descendants of European settlers are slowly learning that complete wildfire suppression eventually makes things worse — something that many tribes in California already knew.”

The plan specifically calls for enhanced tribal engagement and expanded use of cultural burns, where tribal organizations use fire intentionally for ceremonies, subsistence, and managing vital cultural and economic resources.

The U.S. Forest Service outlawed controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires, after the Big Burn of 1910 — a devastating blaze that scorched 3 million acres of U.S. and Canadian forest in two days. This restriction curtailed tribes’ cultural and controlled burn practices.

“When I think about the past century of ineffective fire suppression policies, you know, they didn’t listen to the Indian voice enough,” said Dirk Charley, a member of the Dunlap Band of Mono Indians. Charley is a retired U.S. Forest Service employee, former firefighter and a key partner with the Sierra-Sequoia Burn Cooperative, an initiative supported by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

Charley grew up on a ranch in Dunlap, a community east of Fresno, where he helped his family work the land with fire. Now, he advises scientists and consults with tribes and agencies across the U.S. to coordinate prescribed fires.

“When we go out and work the land, it’s always done with respect for the people whose land we’re on. We work closely with local tribes and walk the sites with them. Cultural burning, for me, holds a distinct purpose: to connect with communities, bond over our families and friendships, and nurture our ties to the land and our culture,” he said.

How AI can support the growing need for prescribed burns amid intensifying wildfires

As California reembraces centuries-old Indigenous knowledge to inform the response to today’s fire threats, a powerful new tool — AI — is also emerging.

USC researchers are using AI to collaborate with firefighters to strategically plan controlled burns and manage unexpected blazes. They’ve found that AI enhances traditional ecological knowledge — such as Charley’s — by predicting environmental responses to controlled burns and helping assess how smoke spreads, expanding age-old wisdom that has sustained ecosystems for generations.

Experts note that AI can help address the surging demand for prescribed fires, which has intensified amid the relentless onslaught of mega-fires. In collaboration with state, federal and tribal entities, AI bridges gaps, equipping firefighting efforts with additional support when it is needed most.

Designing a controlled fire in a way that is safe and does not harm the environment is very difficult.

Yolanda Gil, USC professor

“Designing a controlled fire in a way that is safe and does not harm the environment is very difficult. This does not scale given the growing demand for preventive fires,” said Yolanda Gil, research professor of computer science and spatial sciences at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Gil is using AI techniques to capture sophisticated knowledge that experts use to build models that predict how fire evolves under different conditions based on factors like wind speed, direction, slope and vegetation density. It can also empower decision-makers to tailor their mitigation approaches to specific goals, Gil said. For instance, it can generate customized plans if the goal is to burn a certain percentage of vegetation in an area or to minimize the impact on air quality.

Reflecting on a century of ineffective fire suppression policies, it’s clear that the Indigenous perspective wasn’t adequately considered, Charley said, noting that his father made a point of blending traditional ecological knowledge with fire training, emphasizing respect for sacred sites and Indigenous practices.

Central to effective firefighting is partnering with Indigenous tribes, whose invaluable insights into the land, gained through centuries of observance and reverence, are vital in understanding the terrain’s nuances and vulnerabilities.

“Recognizing what surrounds us is crucial — different animals, insects, plants, trees,” Charley said. “This concept is at the heart of the Sierra-Sequoia Burn Cooperative, where we use controlled fires to enhance growth and maintain a clear forest that benefits all, from the raptors that fly through the trees to the families that connect through the shared landscape.”

The post What can Native American knowledge, and now AI, teach us about fire? appeared first on USC News.

An ethical approach to power, water conservation that protects the poor


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Keeping the Lights On

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Keeping the Lights On

USC Viterbi’s Bhaskar Krishnamachari and USC economist Matthew Kahn have proposed an ethical plan to promote power and water conservation that targets the biggest users while protecting the poor.
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Americans want their electricity cheap, reliable and green, with 24/7 access 365 days a year. They also expect inexpensive water available, anytime, anywhere, even in the increasingly arid, sunbaked West.

Unfortunately, Americans’ desires clash with the reality of climate change.

With record-setting heatwaves, tornados, fires and cold spells becoming ever more commonplace, the power grid has grown less stable. When blackouts occur, especially on scorching or frigid days, the elderly are at risk, as are people in need of dialysis and other urgent medical services. Similarly, years of drought threaten the future economic growth and development of several western states and cities. In June, for instance, Arizona announced that it would halt new home construction in the area surrounding Phoenix because of a paucity of groundwater.

As the demand for electricity and water continues to soar along with the population, the need to conserve precious resources has never been greater. However, raising electricity and water prices when demand surges, say during a brutal heatwave, frustrates consumers, who accuse power and water companies of price gouging. Government mandated cutbacks often engender angry political backlashes.

Matthew Kahn, an economist at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and USC Viterbi’s Bhaskar Krishnamachari believe they have come up with a better approach to conservation by offering targeted financial incentives to the biggest electricity and water users. Machine learning algorithms would identify users most likely to significantly reduce their power and water consumption, based partly on their responses to past price hikes, while market forces would help determine the size of the incentives.

“We’re trying to use economic and engineering ideas to help us to adapt to climate change,” said Kahn, Provost Professor of Economics and Spatial Sciences.

Added Krishnamachari, Ming Hsieh Faculty Fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering-Systems and professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science: “What appeals to me is the fact that you’re not asking everybody to bear the brunt of higher energy or water prices, especially those that have the least resources. This is a more ethical and fair approach.”

Keeping the lights on

Climate change has made it difficult for utility companies to consistently provide reliable power. In other words, it’s harder than ever to keep the lights on. Extreme weather, such as heat waves and wildfires that knock out transmission lines, accounted for more than 80% of reported major outages in the U.S. between 2000 through 2021, according to a report by the nonprofit research organization Climate Central.

To reduce energy demand and encourage conservation, Kahn and Krishnamachari suggest offering money to big users, such as larger companies, that would agree to pay extremely high energy rates during the 15 or 20 days of peak power demand.

Knowing that they would face exorbitant prices two to three weeks a year might spur them to invest in conservation measures to reduce their overall annual energy costs, including insulation, energy-efficient appliances and solar panels, Kahn said.

“Bhaskar and I are focused on the very largest consumers of power who, we think, have more fat in their energy diet and energy inefficiencies in their homes that they would root out if they face these higher price points,” he said.

The USC researchers would like to enlist hundreds of participants in an initial pilot study. By tracking who turns down the offer, who accepts it, how much they modify their behavior, their ages, where they live and other data, a machine learning algorithm could become better at identifying the type of person who would conserve the most energy. That information could inform which customers receive future financial offers and even the size of the incentives, Krishnamachari said.

“The more data we have, the better the model we’ll get over time,” he said.

Let it flow

Until last year’s heavy rains, the western U.S. had experienced its worst “megadrought” in 1,200 years, according to a study in Nature Climate Change. Water scarcity remains a big problem in the region. In May, for example, California, Arizona and Nevada agreed to cut water use by 3 million acre-feet between now and the end of 2026, slashing usage by about 14% across the Southwest.

Confronted with a shrinking supply of water for agriculture, industry and residential uses, water agencies have pursued different strategies to encourage conservation.

They have asked consumers to cutback, which has had only limited success. They have enacted restrictions, which have resulted in water savings but left some customers fuming at what they consider governmental overreach. The Los Angeles County Waterworks Districts, among others, has offered customers rebates to rip out their thirsty lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant landscaping, an approach that has won favor with consumers but failed to dramatically reduce water consumption.

As with electricity, the USC researchers offer a new approach. Building on the success of the lawn-removal programs, they suggest offering a subset of the biggest water users financial incentives to reduce their overall consumption. In exchange for a yet-to-be-determined amount, program participants would agree to much higher water rates for a number of years or days during a year.

“Today, most water agencies don’t know how responsive individual customers would be to higher prices,” Kahn and Krishnamachari write in the paper “A New Strategy for Western States to Adapt to Long-Term Drought: Customized Water Pricing,” which appeared in The Conversation. “By conducting the type of pilot study that we have described, agencies could answer that question without raising prices for vulnerable households. If such initiatives succeeded, they could be replicated in other drought-prone areas of the West.”

Kahn believes farmers are the key to water conservation. With agriculture consuming 80% of water across the West, even small changes in their behavior could have an outsize impact.

“Why is any alfalfa grown in Arizona at the same time the governor is saying that Phoenix needs to grow more slowly (because of a lack of water)?” he asked. “We need to incentivize them to use less water, or even sell their water rights.”

Data, data, data

Data – and lots of it – would be the key to evaluating the success of the water conservation pilot program, Krishnamachari said.

“Using customer-level water consumption data over time, water agencies could track usage and compare customers who participated in the price increase program with others who turned down the offer,” he said, “This would make it possible to estimate the water conservation benefits of introducing customized water prices.”

Kahn and Krishnamachari want to test their ideas in the field. They are currently in talks with an unnamed power company in Southern California.

“We need to partner with a major electric utility or water utility to get from the blackboard to helping people in the real world,” Kahn said.

The post An ethical approach to power, water conservation that protects the poor appeared first on USC News.

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