The Task at Land (and Sea and Air)

Launched recently by Dean Steve Kay, the USC Dornsife Sustainability Task Force takes on questions affecting people and the environment.
ByPamela J. Johnson

It’s 5 p.m. so you grab your keys and cell phone and head home. As you hear the click of your office door lock shut, you realize you’ve neglected to turn off the light and your computer. But there’s no turning back. Your single thought is that flounder defrosting on your kitchen counter.

Do you know how much energy you’re wasting?

At least one USC Dornsife professor does. Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business, has obtained a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to explore ways to reduce energy consumption in office buildings. The vice dean for social sciences is teaming with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC School of Architecture to develop strategies to promote energy efficient behavior.

Many office building occupants aren’t motivated to save energy. Their thought: I’m not paying the bills. But according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, commercial buildings account for nearly 20 percent of the nation’s energy consumption and 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Wood’s team is designing strategies for building operations that cut energy while increasing human comfort.

“I’m studying how humans can more efficiently use energy within office buildings,” Wood said. “Burcin Bercerik-Gerber [at USC Viterbi] is designing office buildings so that they’re responsive. So in the future, we might wear computer chips to regulate temperature and lighting. Or we might have apps on our phones that automatically set the thermostats and lights when you walk into a room.”

This project is one example of countless others that can be supported by the USC Dornsife Sustainability Task Force recently implemented by Dean Steve Kay.

“This new initiative came in with Dean Kay,” said Wood, who together with Charles McKenna, professor of chemistry, and vice dean of natural sciences and mathematics, was appointed by Kay to lead the task force. “Sustainability is such an important societal issue, and it’s an issue we’re already taking on at USC Dornsife. There’s already been tremendous interest.”

Added McKenna: “Sustaining the environment is also a critical task for the physical and life sciences, from chemistry and biology to geology. Air, earth and sea — understanding the planetary resources that make life possible is a critical task now and will affect future generations.”

The task force is also planning to invite leading scholars from outstanding programs abroad in recognition of the global nature of many problems of sustainability and the environment, McKenna said.

Task force members, who have been drawn from departments across USC Dornsife, will promote research at the intersection of people and the environment. Participants may evolve as the effort progresses.

The task force builds upon USC Dornsife’s successful interdisciplinary undergraduate major in environmental studies and its associated progressive master’s program, the teaching and research programs affiliated with the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center, the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, and the USC Dornsife 2020 Climate Change in Southern California Bight research cluster, among others.

Some research areas include scarce environmental resources, conservation efforts, climate change, air and water quality, biodiversity, energy, livable cities, and coastal environments.

Specifically, the task force is asked to assist in identifying: (a) the key themes in sustainability education and research that should be the focus for future development in this area; (b) main programmatic goals for USC Dornsife to consider over a three-year period beginning in 2013-14; and (c) available departmental strengths and challenges in terms of existing research and teaching resources relevant to sustainability.

Current task force chairs are Robert English, associate professor of international relations and director of the School of International Relations, Roberta Marinelli, director of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, and William Berelson, professor and chair of earth sciences.

“Sustainability means something different within each of those disciplines, but there’s a common understanding of the bigger issues we face,” Wood said. “It could be on a molecular level, it could be terrestrial or oceanic, but we all agree we need to have an integrated approach.”

Marinelli said the USC Wrigley Institute was excited to work on the effort with psychology, economics, social justice, political science, international relations, history, philosophy and business, to name a few disciplines.

“This dialogue is critical for developing new sustainability research thrusts,” Marinelli said. “And for creating a community of graduate and undergraduate students immersed in cross-cutting research.”

One strategy on tap for creating a community of scholars will be to create a seminar series and discussion forum concentrating on novel sustainability topics from diverse perspectives. A new postdoctoral program will also be announced.

“When Dean Kay invites you to be involved in this and to offer your opinion, it’s a real honor,” Wood said.

“It could be that we decide to focus on urban coastal environments because of our location,” Wood said. “Or we could decide to take more of an international view and focus on the Pacific Rim as a sustainability question. We haven’t decided exactly what form this effort will take. But we have all of our building blocks in place.”