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Researchers discussed their work as part of Aspen Ideas climate conference
Ph.D. student Jessica Carde (center) and Associate Director in the Institute of Environment Piero Gardinali (left) shared their research during a boat tour of Biscayne Bay.

Researchers discussed their work as part of Aspen Ideas climate conference

March 22, 2023 at 2:51pm

FIU faculty and students are leading groundbreaking environmental research. In fact, FIU holds a designation as a university of distinction in environmental resilience from the Florida Board of Governors.

FIU researchers discussed their work and showcased various projects during excursions for attendees of the recent Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, which was hosted by the prestigious Aspen Institute in collaboration with the City of Miami Beach. The powerhouse conference featured some of the biggest names in the climate arena along with governmental leaders including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Congressman John Curtis.

As part of the conference, FIU researchers were among South Florida leaders who guided excursions and provided interactive and educational experiences. Faculty and graduate students led tours of the university's Wall of Wind facility and the solar microgrid at the Engineering Center and a boat tour of the Biscayne Bay, in which researchers shared how FIU is helping preserve the ecosystem.

The excursions are designed by the City of Miami Beach and Aspen Institute to allow attendees to combine a traditional conference of high-level speakers and conversation with an extra element: a boots-on-the-ground experience that allows for exploring and learning about Miami and the city’s sustainability efforts as told by partnering institutions. 

“To create a partnership where we can connect folks with experts and hopefully expand their knowledge, especially at such an amazing institution as Florida International University, really enhances the value of the conference,” said Natalie Shoultz, program coordinator at Aspen Institute. “We had so many participants being able to engage with scientists. The experience was so valuable to them. To see the research FIU is doing and to connect with the research… The participants were really able to learn things they could take back to their own practice. It was amazing.”

Impact and purpose

FIU’s involvement in these types of events is crucial to fulfilling the university’s mission of scholarship and service — and key to the work of the university’s newly established Center for Community Impact and Public Purpose. The center's goal is to facilitate meaningful engagement opportunities for faculty, staff and students and to expand community partnerships. 

“We’re proud to have featured FIU research during the Aspen Ideas conference,” said Anthony Rionda, associate vice president of Strategic Communications, Government and External Affairs. Rionda and Bridgette Cram, interim vice president for Innovative Education and Student Success, are co-executive directors of the university's Center for Community Impact and Public Purpose. 

Rionda added, “At FIU, we take our role as a community leader very seriously. The Center for Community Impact and Public Purpose helps ensure that we are creating, growing and expanding key partnerships that speak directly to the needs of our community.”

Getting to know FIU research

Conference attendees were blown away by research happening at FIU. After John Volakis — dean of the College of Engineering and Computing — greeted excursion guests at the Engineering Center, the group got a behind-the-scenes look at FIU’s Wall of Wind (WoW). The facility is a large-scale hurricane simulator capable of generating 157 mph wind speeds with rain intrusion. The WoW is also a National Science Foundation-funded experimental facility under the NHERI program and a key component of FIU research on hurricane and extreme event mitigation measures.

Researchers also took attendees on a tour of the FIU and Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) microgrid. The microgrid is capable of supplying backup power to FIU’s engineering center for approximately 24 hours. It also gives students and researchers the ability to gain hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology and enables FPL to conduct research to help advance renewable energy and make Florida’s energy infrastructure even smarter.

“The FIU Wall of Wind tour provided a great overview of the test capabilities and mitigation techniques that can be done there,” said Dhevathi Rajan Rajagopalan Kannan, a battery researcher who attended the WoW and microgrid tours. “Also, I really liked the microgrid applications and presentation by Professor [Arif] Sarwat. One of the things that was really interesting to me was the wireless charging that they have implemented within the campus route to charge electric vehicles. I work in the EV [electric vehicle] automotive sector, and I saw that it was a fascinating application and has the potential of being implemented on a wider scale.”

Another group of conference attendees got up close and personal in the field — or better yet, in the water — with a team of marine scientists from FIU during a boat tour of Biscayne Bay. The researchers discussed the importance of the bay in preserving the local ecosystem and spoke about FIU research on a range of topics from coastal dolphin behavior to projects that are helping preserve the bay, including FIU monitoring the water quality of the bay with buoy systems.

Shoultz, who attended the boat tour was impressed by the beauty of the bay and was happy to see enthusiastic conference attendees scribbling notes and asking the researchers questions. “So many folks that went on the tour are working on ocean conservation and wildlife [conservation],” she said. “All of our participants were engaging with the experts from FIU, and they were really able to learn more about Miami and Miami Beach.”

For Erik Salna, associate director of education and outreach and a meteorologist at FIU’s Extreme Events Institute, the excursions were a smashing success. He led the tour of WoW.

“WoW research and all our research at FIU is about resilience and being ready and prepared for what the future of extreme events holds for us,” he said. “I thought the tour went great. The group was very receptive, they asked great questions.”

He was even able to provide advice to an attendee who asked about organizing competitions like FIU’s Wall of Wind Challenge, a community outreach competition that has local high schoolers create wind mitigation designs to sustain the WoW’s hurricane-force winds.

Moments like these are just one way that FIU makes a difference.

"FIU researchers are making our community more resilient and sustainable and protecting one of the gems of South Florida, Biscayne Bay," Rionda said. "Through these excursions, FIU furthered its international reach and local impact."