Rice University logoShell Center for Sustainability
Top blue bar image
  • Shell Center for Sustainability
  • Shell Center for Sustainability
  • Shell Center for Sustainability
Facebook btnRSS


The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.

 SCS Fellows - Research

2011 Shell Center for Sustainability (SCS) Fellowships

Fourteen Shell Center for Sustainability (SCS) Fellowships were awarded for student research that will take place in 2011.
The SCS Fellows will work under the direction of a project investigator and will conduct research in important areas of sustainable development as summarized below.
In The News.

The participating students are:

Urbanization and Carbon In Waterways
Rebecca Barnes, Jim Elder, and John Irza

Coastal Flood Warning System
Emilia Stepinski, and Navid Ataei 

Efficient Solar Cell
Kun-Po Chao and Sravani Gullapalli 

 Religion and the Environment
Katherine Sorrell, Molly Golstein, Virginia White, Henry Hancock, and David Liou  

Reduce and Fix CO2
Allison Heath   

Consequences of Climate Change on Ecosystems
Amber Roman 

barnes pic jim elder
Rebecca Barnes, Jim Elder, and John Irza (PI: Rebecca Barnes, coPI: C.A. Masiello, V. Colvin)

Urbanization and Carbon In Waterways

Currently 79% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, with more and more people moving to cities each year. Despite occupying less than 2% of the Earth’s surface, urban centers have large ecological footprints, producing 78% of the global greenhouse gases, inextricably altering biogeochemical cycles. Recent work by members of our group (Barnes, Zeng & Masiello) has shown that cities are not only sources of CO2 to the atmosphere but also a large source of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC = CO2 + HCO3- + CO3-2) to watersheds. These observations suggest we need to change the way we think about human alteration of the carbon cycle – not only are we changing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, we are changing the lateral flux of carbon from land to the ocean. With funds from the Shell Center for Sustainability we have started a sampling campaign on two local waterways: Brays and Buffalo Bayous. Collected samples are brought back to the laboratory for analysis and to be used in bioassay experiments. The measurements, along with the bioassay results, allow SCS Fellow, Rebecca Barnes (Postdoctoral Researcher, Earth Science) to determine if and how urbanization affects the processing and export of organic and inorganic carbon in these waterways.  Undergraduate Earth Science majors, Jim Elder (’11) and John (Nick) Irza (’14) are assisting in the sampling and laboratory analyses. For more information please contact Dr. Rebecca Barnes at (713-348-4114).

Return to top.

Emilia StepinskiNavid Ataei

 Emilia Stepinski, and Navid Ataei (PI: Phil Bedient)

Coastal Flood Warning System

SSPEED Center Wins Research Grant

Return to top.

                                Sravani Gullapalli
Kun-Po Chao and Sravani Gullapalli (PI: Sibani Lisa Biswal, coPI: Michael Wong)

Efficient Solar Cell

Solar cells convert the energy from photons in sunlight to electrons.  Typically these cells are limited to certain wavelengths and convert one photon into one electron, regardless of the energy of the photons.   Recent advances in semiconducting particles have shown the ability to utilize a larger wavelength range and generate more electrons.  These solar cells include combining semiconducting nanoparticles and polymers together to form a nanocomposite structure.  These cells are believed to be able to provide reasonable power conversion efficiencies (>10%) with low manufacturing costs. However, there continues to be several obstacles to overcome.  Several problems, such as aggregation of the nanoparticles have resulted in efficiencies below 5%.  We have recently developed a technique to disperse nanoparticles efficiently.  We believe that this will prevent the problem of particle aggregation and allow for better dispersions of particles with conjugated polymers. The Shell Center for Sustainability Fellows are developing a new type of active layer in a solar cell containing semiconducting nanoparticle/conjugated polymer nanocomposite that can obtain power conversion efficiencies close to 10%.  If achieved, these materials can lead to a more sustainable source of energy.


Templating CdSe tetrapods at the air/water interface with POPC lipids


Return to top.

Molly fellow11 David fellow11 Elaine Ecklund
Katherine Sorrell, Molly Goldstein, Virginia White, Henry Hancock, and David Liou (PI: Elaine Howard Ecklund)

Religion and the Environment

While debates over climate change and the use of energy resources have involved global powers and voices, the recent British Petroleum oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has brought the debate to bear on the Gulf Coast region of the United States in more profound ways. Citizens once ambivalent about the question of environmental stewardship now find themselves engaged in a concern for the surrounding habitat as environmental degradation has become immediately local with the appearance of tar balls on the beaches of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, the loss of lives as well as jobs, and the devastation of entire local fishing industries. As the largest city in the Gulf Coast region as well as Texas and the seat of the country’s oil and energy industries, Houston is a city situated at the center of the energy and environment conversation.

The media has focused intently on the debate over energy use and climate change, but largely ignored the role of religious communities. Environmental activism or even moderate concern is not commonly associated with religious communities, often even viewed in opposition to these communities (Kanagy and Nelsen 1995). In the broader debate over religion and science, scientists lament a lack of scientific knowledge among Americans, sometimes implicitly or explicitly blaming the high religiosity of the American public. No systematic research, however, specifically examines the ways religious people understand the relationship between religion and the environment. This gap must be filled because religious communities may contribute significantly by mobilizing congregants in environmental efforts, including clean-ups after an oil spill or providing support for those who lose their jobs due to an environmental crisis. In addition, religion plays a role in social understandings of environmental stewardship, and “religions have been neither simple agents of environmental domination nor unmixed repositories of ecological wisdom. In complex and variable ways, they have been both” (Gottlieb 1996, pg. 9). The ability of religious communities to build consensus that shapes ideas as well as actions is a compelling reason to investigate religious communities and their understanding of environmental stewardship. Some studies show, for example, that a “greening of religion” is occurring across denominations and doctrinal lines (Shibley and Wiggins 1997; Warner 2008). As one example, the evangelical Christian community, which boasts a large and highly influential, political and social, in addition to religious, constituency in the US has begun to embrace the idea of creation care (Dewitt 2006; Lowe 2009).

Student fellows, with $15,000 provided through the Shell Center will examine how local religious organizations and leaders draw on their traditions in responding to and engaging with environmental issues.  Fellows will observe eight worship centers in Houston and interview 10 members and between two and three religious leaders for a total of 20 interviews with religious leaders (making 100 interviews total). Worship centers will include those that are Catholic, Southern Baptist, Buddhist, and Presbyterian, U.S.A.  These religious institutions represent three of the largest Christian traditions in the US and further represent major steams of Christian thought (Catholic, Evangelical and Mainline Protestant), while Buddhism is currently one of the largest non-Christian traditions in the US. To address the primary interests of the Shell Center for Sustainability, interviews with congregants as well as religious leaders will include questions about the relationship of their tradition and values as well as participation in environmental sustainability efforts related to: supply and efficient use of energy resources, air and water quality, urban sustainability in Houston, and climate change. Through the observations and interviews, we will be able to determine whether these places of worship promote or even sponsor any form of green programming and will also be able to assess which forms of engagement have implications for environmental concern (or lack thereof).  Student fellows will be trained in all aspects of the research process from data collection to analysis to developing publications from these data. http://www.ehecklund.rice.edu

  Ecklund team

 Publications & Outcomes:

 Peifer, Jared, Elaine Howard Ecklund, and Cara Fullerton, “How Evangelical Christians Frame Their Environmental Concern and Apathy,” revise and resubmit, Review of Religious Research. (article)



Return to top.



Allison Heath (PI: Lydia Kavraki)


Reduce and Fix CO2

The goal of this project is to develop and analyze novel and sustainable methods to reduce and fix carbon dioxide (CO2). We will focus on biomediated methods that harness the metabolic ability of organisms, especially microbes, to consume CO2 and related compounds. Novel ways to fix CO2 would have a beneficial impact on enabling sustainable industrial processes, energy production and gas conversion technologies.

In the long run, the award from the Shell Center for Sustainability (SCS) will enable us to combine computational and experimental work to achieve the goal of finding and developing new CO2 fixation routes.

The proposed work is to a large extent computational and builds the foundation for further analysis. During the duration of the project, we will apply and extend biochemical path finding algorithms, recently developed in our laboratory. These algorithms are capable of searching large metabolic databases in order to find routes to transform a compound of interest (in this case CO2) to another compound (in this case alcohols or feedstock chemicals). These routes may be linear or branched complex routes and may use combinations of metabolic reactions from one or more species.  Allison Heath, the SCS Fellow, will utilize advanced search methodologies, graph theory, parallel computing and data from experimentation in an effort to produce algorithms especially tailored to CO2 fixation.

The long-term goal of the project is to take the best combinations of enzymes identified from the computational tools and produce them in cells by expressing synthetic genes encoding the enzymes. The results of such experimentation will provide an important proof of concept, as well as important feedback for improving the computational tools. The most successful combinations in experimentation can then be further investigated and optimized with the goal of developing efficient biomediated CO2 fixation methods.

Return to top.

Amber Roman (PI: Volker Rudolf, coPI: A. Dunham, C.A. Masiello, R. Barnes)


Consequences of Climate Change on Ecosystems

There is increasing evidence that climate change transforms natural ecosystems, but the consequences remain unclear. Understanding and predicting consequences of climate change is essential for managing ecosystem health and functioning. Our study will connect Rice ecologists with biogeochemists to develop a predictive framework that connects climate change to the structure and functioning of a sensitive East Texas biome.

The Shell Center for Sustainability fellow, Amber Roman, will play an instrumental role in all aspects of this project. Under the guidance of the PI and Co-PIs, she will be responsible for running two sets of experiments: 1) A large scale outdoors experiment that will test how different aspects of climate change influence the structure and functioning of a sensitive Texas ecosystem, with focus on the native amphibian community. For this project she will help to create experimental pond communities that mimic the local natural amphibian pond communities. After experiments are set up, she will help monitor communities to measure the effects on the fitness of amphibian species, effects on the structure of communities and ecosystem functions. To prepare her for analyzing the structure and functioning of ecosystem, she will be trained by Dr. Masiello on all aspects of water chemistry analysis, and by Dr Rudolf on all aspects of measuring biotic community characteristics. 2) She will set up controlled laboratory experiments to test whether native amphibian species differ in their sensitivity to changes in temperature. These experiments will be carried out in environmental chambers at Rice University and provide detailed insights into how native species will respond to different climate change scenarios.  Finally, she will help analyze the data from both experiments and prepare the results for publication in leading, peer reviewed scientific journals.

As part of this project, the SCS fellow will also serve help mentoring independent research projects of undergraduate students and engage in a K12 mentoring program together with Dr Rudolf.

As part of this project, the SCS fellow will help to conduct a study that will provide important novel insight into the mechanisms that determine the impact of climate change on the functioning of natural ecosystems and guide future conservation efforts and planning.

Consequences of Clmate Change on Ecosystems. Final Report.


As a result of this support, a scientific collaboration with China was established to study climate change. Project researchers visited the Institute of Plant Protection (IPP), Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), in Beijing, and led a seminar in this subject.

Link: Beijing Visit

Return to top.

Return to Research