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IGERT Trainees Set a Future Course for Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering


Trainees and affiliates of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering at The University of Texas (UT) took a major step toward future leadership in their field. At the 2nd annual meeting of our IGERT program, trainees and affiliate met with our External Advisory Board (EAB) to discuss barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration. The EAB recommended that students develop a list of grand challenges that face the field, and to consider how interdisciplinary collaboration could help to solve these problems. Eight IGERT trainees (Ellison Carter, Matt Earnest, Elliott Gall, Priscilla Guerrero, Diana Hun, James Lo, Brent Stephens, and Elizabeth Walsh) and one IGERT affiliate (Mark Jackson) had several meetings and a retreat to develop their ideas and to make recommendations to help shape the future of their field. They made a formal presentation to the EAB at our 3rd annual meeting in July 2009. The EAB was impressed and suggested that students submit a formal editorial to the journal Indoor Air, arguably the top journal in the field with a relatively high impact factor. The students submitted an editorial entitled, “Priorities in indoor environmental science and health, as students see them.” The editorial was accepted without revision and published in the December 2009 issue of Indoor Air.

The editorial included several passages that evolved from trainee and affiliate experiences in our highly interdisciplinary IGERT program. For example, the students begin their editorial with a strong statement about the need for collaboration across disciplines, “Indoor environmental science and health research will flourish and progress when members from multiple disciplines collaborate and work toward a common goal.” They go on to state, “Perhaps our field would further prosper by outcome-driven projects relying on many different outside specialists who would come to know the nature of our work in bits and pieces, rather than by convincing a few small groups of researchers to devote their careers to indoor environmental studies.”

The students then go on to list five areas that they see as the grand challenges for a new generation of indoor environmental scientists. They begin the discussion with an acknowledgment of the origin of their collaboration, “…with these collaborative goals in mind, we, the student members of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in Indoor Environmental Science and Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin gathered to discuss research priorities in our field and to highlight some impending grand challenges we face as emerging indoor environmental scientists, but also as members of a larger, environmentally concerned scientific community.” The five grand challenges that they list include (paraphrased here): (1) development of new cost-effective control technologies for indoor pollution that do not require energy penalties, (2) research and solutions to threats on indoor environmental quality that will emerge with urban densification, (3) collaboration with policy-makers to establish enforceable codes and guidelines that create BOTH energy efficient and healthy indoor environments (implied correctly that the “healthy” component is now largely missing), (4) improve risk assessments based on improved physiological metrics for mixtures of indoor pollutants, including those associated with a wave of new green building materials, and (5) work toward improving indoor environmental quality for vulnerable populations lacking in political and economic power across the nation and world.

Importantly, this was an IGERT student-driven effort without direct faculty participation. Its origin was a challenge from our IGERT External Advisory Board, a group of internationally-recognized leaders in the field. The EAB was very impressed with student results, and our students have received considerable positive feedback on their work from others in the field. This has become a major source of pride for our entire IGERT community. There has never been a student-driven editorial in the journal Indoor Air, and a review of major journals in the environmental science and engineering field indicates that this is at least a rare event, if not unprecedented.

Address Goals

The process of developing an editorial on priorities for an entire field required students to meet, brainstorm, consider and refine ideas, and synthesize final ideas into a well-stated document. This collaborative and multi-disciplinary process implicitly leads to the development of leadership skills, and was therefore a great learning experience for our IGERT students. However, their efforts have also been widely read by other students and young professionals across the world, and should serve to educate and motivate others, i.e., an extended learning experience. While not specific to a research project, the process that our students undertook did lead to an element of discovery in so much as they had to consider a wide spectrum of issues related to indoor environmental science and engineering and decide amongst themselves which of those issues emerge as the grand challenges of the future. The collaborative process led to discovery of research priorities, as well as students having discovered confidence in their own leadership skills.