Nelson Around the World

The Nelson Institute may be housed at Science Hall, but its impact spans the globe.

World MapAlthough the Nelson Institute is housed within Science Hall at 550 North Park Street, our faculty, students, and alumni are sharing our mission and conducting research internationally. From partnering with world-renowned organizations to helping small tribal communities, the institute makes an impact all across the globe.

Karnataka, India
In 2020, Nelson Institute Dean Paul Robbins and Nelson graduate student Vaishnavi Tripuraneni partnered with researchers in India to publish a study detailing the relationship between biodiversity and coffee farming in Karnataka, an Indian state. The team found that because the Arabica coffee variant has to be grown under thick tree canopies, several avian and mammalian species are drawn to the shaded areas, promoting biodiversity.

However, many coffee farms in the country have gravitated towards growing a different coffee plant, Robusta, to avoid spending on tree-canopy maintenance for Arabica coffee, driving out biodiversity. This is because most Indian coffee farms are run by “smallholders,” people who manage small-scale farms who can’t afford additional expenses due to the instability in the area’s agricultural workforce. Robbins emphasizes the importance of “work[ing] creatively with farmers to find ways for them to make wildlife-friendly decisions in turbulent markets.”

Laxenburg, Austria
After spending four decades collaborating with Laxenburg’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Nelson Institute’s energy analysis and policy (EAP) Program has partnered with the Austrian research institute. The two teams will collaborate on “policy-relevant projects related to energy, climate, air quality, and more.” Greg Nemet, Tracey Holloway, and Rob Anex are among a few Nelson faculty and affiliates who are leading this new partnership with IIASA.

Past Nelson-related collaborations with IIASA include:

  • Nelson Institute alumnus Dan York attending a conference hosted by IIASA after working with them as a graduate student. York has claimed that becoming involved with IIASA was “one of [his] favorite experiences as a graduate student.”
  • Nelson PhD student Thomas Leffler attending IIASA’s Young Scientists Summer Program in the summer of 2022 to research the “geospatial dimensions of deforestation and associated infectious disease risk in West Africa.” Leffler shared with us that he was “very excited and so grateful to be able to participate in the Young Scientist program.”

Utqiaġvik, United States
What’s better than taking Environmental Studies 126 at the Nelson Institute? Taking a transposed version of the same course in Utqiaġvik, Alaska! For several years, Nelson affiliates Cathy Middlecamp and Tim Lindstrom have taught at a pre-college summer STEM camp at Iḷisaġvik College in Utqiaġvik. After joining the American Chemical Society, Middlecamp aided Alaskan chemistry professor Larry Duffy in writing a grant proposal, and, in return, Duffy invited her to teach at Iḷisaġvik’s summer camp. Middlecamp then recruited Lindstrom, her former-grad-student-turned-colleague, to accompany her to Utqiaġvik.

While teaching at the camp, Middlecamp and Lindstrom educate students in a “place-based” manner, meaning that they use the Alaskan environment to teach the same concepts being taught in Environmental Studies 126. For example, a previous Nelson article writes that students in Utqiaġvik study washed-up trash on Arctic beaches to study pollution rather than visiting residence halls and campus buildings (like the UW–Madison undergraduates do). Middlecamp and Lindstrom both hope to travel back to Utqiaġvik for many years to teach at Iḷisaġvik College.

Pará, Brazil
“Your next state could come with a side of illegal deforestation,” reads the subhead of an article highlighting Holly Gibbs and Lisa Rausch, two Nelson-affiliated researchers. Gibbs and Rausch found that many slaughterhouses are buying cattle from ranchers who allow their herds to feed on lands of Indigenous tribes and protected areas of the Amazon.

Gibbs and Rausch’s team has tracked cattle movements in Pará, Brazil, and found that millions of cattle had, at some point, been located in these protected areas before being sold to slaughterhouses. Even though purchasing these cattle creates a bad reputation for slaughterhouses, the lack of available recordkeeping in Brazil makes it difficult for them to determine the previous whereabouts of herds, and easier for ranchers to sweep their herds’ whereabouts under the rug. “Many slaughterhouses… cannot address this issue without increased availability of information about their suppliers,” Rausch explains. This notion is corroborated by Gibbs, who pushes for “improved cattle traceability, transparency, and accountability.”

Arctic and Antarctic Oceans
Did you know that the ice sheets surrounding Antarctica and Greenland are so large, they attract water with their own gravitational force? We at the institute sure did, thanks to our Q&A with Hannah Zanowski! As a self-titled “polar oceanographer,” the waters Zanowski dives into are a bit more frigid than those that other oceanographers are familiar with.

Zanowski has conducted research in the coldest regions of both the northern and southern hemispheres, studying how different events — like polynas, giant holes in ocean ice — impact the surrounding environment. Her current research focuses on how Arctic glaciers and melting ice sheets from the past 10,000 years have shaped the hydrography of the northern areas of Canada’s Baffin Bay. This past spring, Zanowski also piloted teaching an undergraduate atmospheric and oceanic sciences course to assess interest in adding an oceanography elective class to the atmospheric and oceanic sciences major.

The Nelson Institute started communicating with leaders and wildlife organizations in Botswana in 2017, but over the past few years, the institute’s Nathan Schulfer and Dean Paul Robbins have increased the efforts to work with the people of Botswana. The goal is to help preserve Botswana’s environment and biodiversity, especially since more elephants call this country home than anyplace else in the world! The Nelson Institute was awarded a public affairs grant to kick off a project with the Botswana Wildlife Training Institute to to help promote the use of management oriented monitoring systems (MOMS), which are used to track and monitor wildlife species, in Sub-Saharan communities.

The institute hosted a day-and-a-half long workshop to teach individuals from Botswana’s community-based organizations, ministry departments, nonprofits, community trusts, and the Okavango research institute how to use the MOMS. This workshop was very successful at bringing people together, and serves as a great first step in continued engagement with these groups to preserve Botswana’s ecosystems.

In Guyana, the nonprofit environmental organization Conservation International is working on assessing the country’s tropical forest maintenance. Last summer, two newly minted Nelson Institute environmental observation and informatics (EOI) alumni, Timothy Babb and Gwen Murphy, were funded by NASA to work with Conservation International on this project. Further research is still being conducted, but the former students have wrapped up their field work where they conducted interviews and surveys in Guyanese villages.

The goal of the collaboration with Conservation International is to  “evaluate if tropical forest conservation programs have been successful in maintaining forests and livelihoods of those involved in forest management,” according to Sarah Graves, EOI’s program manager who is also working on the project. The team will be using the data collected from the interviews and surveys to identify who is participating in conservation programs, and this information will then be paired with satellite data of forest cover to understand if these conservation programs are successful. Keep an eye out for more updates from this project.

The Nelson Institute’s Center for Climatic Research Director Michael Notaro has done extensive research on Australia’s monsoon season, contributing to six papers from 2011-20. His most recent research on monsoons focuses on how both terrestrial (vegetation and soil moisture) and oceanic forces during monsoon season impact the climate in regions of Australia.

Other research Notaro has conducted on the climate impacts of Australian monsoons has also included vegetation and soil moisture feedback, as well as factors like the Madden-Julian Oscillation (which is the most prominent influence on tropical-atmospheric intraseasonal variability), the effects that vegetation burning has on monsoons, and the differences between Asian and Australian monsoon seasons. Notaro and his team have also used regional climate modeling technologies to identify and analyze land surface feedbacks on the Australian monsoon system. While Notaro is no longer conducting research on Australia’s monsoon season, his current research still focuses on climate impacts — although much closer to home in the Great Lakes area.

Sonora, Mexico
The Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History and Environment has sponsored several research projects over the years, including a 2022 venture to Sonora, Mexico. The research team, including Nelson affiliate Alberto Vargas, aim to help preserve the Sonoran Desert Toad and “implement an integrative mental health program” that incorporates cultural aspects from the Yaqui, the people native to Sonora.

Each year CHE awards grants for environmentally responsible research projects to UW-Madison faculty, graduate students, and staff. The projects must address human dimensions of an environmental issue while also minimizing resource usage, emphasizing environmentally friendly travel, and refraining from disturbing ecosystems or the surrounding environment. Stay tuned for the next call for proposals and check out past research working groups here.