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The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision-making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. We convene science teams to work on broad issues of national and international relevance, such as water resources management, land management, agriculture, species protection, among other areas of study. By supporting interdisciplinary science teams and researchers with diverse skills, data, and perspectives, SESYNC seeks to lead in-depth research and scholarship that will inform decisions and accelerate scientific discovery. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

Globalizing Our Understanding of Land-use Change

June 26, 2013

Land-use Change team

Communications Coordinator

A geographer, ecologist, anthropologist, and economist walk into a research center …

No, it’s not the beginning of a bad joke, but the beginning of a very productive workshop that convened recently at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). Earlier this month, co-organizers Dr. Jasper van Vliet of the VU University of Amsterdam, Dr. Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, and Dr. Nicholas Magliocca of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County led scholars, from an array of disciplines and institutions, through an examination of land-use change. (Land-use change is broadly understood as how humans use land—to fulfill, for example, our demands for food, forest products, and energy—and how those uses change land cover, including beaches, agricultural lands, and urban environments.) Specifically, the group was interested in finding patterns among and cultivating shared perspectives on the causes and consequences of land-use change on a global scale.

Although geographers, ecologists, anthropologists, and economists have most certainly researched and synthesized data related to land-use change before, the workshop participants hadn’t all done so together. Scholars from these disciplines have their own journals; their own conferences; their own ways of thinking about problems and approaching solutions. This SESYNC workshop offered these researchers—who, in most cases, had never before worked with one another—an opportunity to sit at the same table to formulate shared understandings of the drivers and outcomes of land-use change.

The workshop’s principal focus was to determine next steps within a larger research effort of the Global Land Project on globalized understandings of land changes. One theme that emerged was the importance of disseminating research results to communities that make decisions about and are impacted by changes in land use, especially policy makers. “Co-designing” the team’s research agenda—i.e., planning research objectives and approaches together with stakeholders who would use the knowledge generated—will help close the gap between what scientists do and what information policy makers need.

By integrating new perspectives, this workshop is driving the team’s work forward in novel and exciting ways. According to Dr. Ellis, the experience “open[ed] the door on broadening the thinking about how land changes and how we can synthesize our knowledge about that. And that, of course, is a little bit scary. You get out of your comfort zone—what is it that we aren’t really sure about? That’s the cutting edge. And we’re definitely there.”

Above photo: Reto Fetz / Creative Commons


The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is a national research center funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland.

Located in Annapolis, MD, SESYNC is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems. We foster collaboration amongst scholars from a diverse array of the natural and social sciences (such as ecology, public health, and political science), as well as stakeholders that include resource managers, policy makers, and community members.

Socio-environmental synthesis is a research approach that accelerates the production of knowledge about the complex interactions between human and natural systems. It may result in new data products—particularly ones that address questions in new spatial or temporal contexts or scales—but may also involve evaluating textual or oral arguments, interpreting evidence, developing new applications or models, or identifying novel areas of study.

Click here to see a list of projects funded by SESYNC.


Meet Our Postdocs: Bill Burnside

June 13, 2013

Bill in the field looking for antsName: Bill Burnside

Institution: The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)

Hometown: El Paso, TX

Field of Study: Ecology

Postdoctoral Project: Toward a Macroecology of Sustainability: Patterns, Processes, & Principles of Socio-environmental Systems

Photo: Bill looking for ants in New Mexico

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I've been an amateur naturalist since I was a child, but that tendency was nurtured by growing up literally on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. I collected insects, fossils, and minerals I found there and amassed a little library of nature guides and books on wildlife. My great aunt would exclaim in Spanish, “Ay, Dios mio (Oh, my Lord),” upon opening my closet and seeing cigar boxes full of dried bugs. College courses on human-environment interactions expanded my interests to include people as part of ecological systems—an interest nurtured by my stepfather, an archaeologist, and by my graduate mentor and colleagues.

Beyond the compelling nature of ecology as a field, I was inspired by the opportunity to teach (which I really enjoy), to study amazing environments and organisms, and to make a difference. Ecological issues usually take a back seat to other concerns, yet are crucial to our survival and prosperity.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher at SESYNC?

My favorite aspect of being a researcher at SESYNC is having the time and intellectual space to think deeply about interesting and potentially useful ideas, both by myself as well as with a great group of colleagues and visitors.

What are the societal benefits of your research?

I hope my research provides some comparative perspective on sustainability efforts, which are often studied in isolation. I also hope it brings ecologists and economists together to work on basic theory that might contribute to better understanding and management of socio-environmental systems—because ecologists and economists are both studying our “house” (eco – comes from oikos, Greek for "house"), and because both involve the study of how organisms use limited means (e.g., the currency of energy in ecology and that of money in economics) to try to meet unlimited wants.

Have you learned anything in your research that has surprised you?

Among three species of harvester ants that differ in the number of ants in an average colony, species with larger colonies were no more successful at harvesting seeds during timed trials than those with smaller colonies, even though they had more scouts out looking for seeds and a larger workforce to harvest seeds.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

My graduate mentor, ecologist Jim Brown, has had the most influence. His passion for ecology, broad intellectual interests, macroscopic approach, and combination of insight and instinct continue to inspire me.

What’s your favorite theory?

I don’t have a favorite, but the metabolic theory of ecology is compelling and informs some of my work. It is the idea that a few key factors that affect the metabolic rates of individual organisms, such as temperature and body size, will scale up to affect ecological patterns and processes, such as the rates at which species will interact. It’s a powerful idea with broad implications, but it’s still being refined.

What are you reading right now?

Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows
Sustainability Science, by Bert deVries
The Magician of Lublin, by I.B. Singer

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office, what would it be?

I’d grab my backpack, which contains my phone, a snack, and other essentials. My laptop is backed up, but my physical belongings are not. And I never like being too far away from a good snack.

Click here to read more about Bill.


The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is a national research center funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland.

Located in Annapolis, MD, SESYNC is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems. We foster collaboration amongst scholars from a diverse array of the natural and social sciences (such as ecology, public health, and political science), as well as stakeholders that include resource managers, policy makers, and community members.

Socio-environmental synthesis is a research approach that accelerates the production of knowledge about the complex interactions between human and natural systems. It may result in new data products—particularly ones
that address questions in new spatial or temporal contexts or scales—but may also involve evaluating textual or oral arguments, interpreting evidence, developing new applications or models, or identifying novel areas of study.

Click here to see a list of projects funded by SESYNC.

A Citizen Army for Monarch Butterfly Science & Conservation

June 3, 2013

Monarch butterfly

Research Fellow

One of the great things about working with monarch butterflies is that people care so much about them. In fact, people care so much about monarchs that they have become the focus of a vast network of citizen-scientists that collects data to understand their population dynamics, which is very useful for conservation science.

Why are monarchs so beloved? Unlike the target species of other conservation efforts, monarchs aren’t known for providing critical ecosystem services or direct monetary benefits for people. Rather, it is the story of their fantastical migratory journey that captures the attention of scholars and “backyard scientists” alike. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) overwinter in dense colonies in very specific mountain locations in Mexico, then follow a multi-generational migratory pathway that brings them all the way to southern Canada. At the end of each season, the final generation undertakes a truly phenomenal migration—up to 4,500 kilometers (more than 4,000 miles)—back to those same mountains in central Mexico.

Because monarchs are one of the most common types of butterflies in North America (although their population numbers are likely declining), people see them regularly, depending on where in North America they live. This familiarity has opened the door for citizens to become actively engaged in their protection—that’s where I come in.

At SESYNC, I work on a project that links together various groups that have initiated citizen-science monitoring programs. I am also part of a synthesis group that is integrating data from multiple citizen-science programs to track the monarch’s large-scale dynamics. Citizen-scientist projects, which have been monitoring monarchs intensively for decades, have provided the opportunity for these types of in-depth studies by the scholarly community. Currently, citizen-scientists spend nearly 100,000 hours each year collecting data on this fascinating species.

Butterfly tagging

Monarchs are an exemplar of how citizen-science can transform the way we conduct—and use—environmental research. Citizen-science has recently become a major focus in both social and environmental research. This popularity is due in large part to an increasingly engaged citizenry that is eager to document its interactions with nature, and now has the tools to do so (like smartphone technology enabled with GPS, cameras, and web access). This effort complements the science community’s need for biological data at large spatial and temporal scales. The widespread data collection of citizen-science has also inspired widespread action: thousands of people now plant monarch “way-stations” in their gardens, which replaces some of the habitat lost through large-scale spraying in agricultural fields that has taken place since genetically-modified crops have become the norm.  Here at SESYNC, we’re working on how to maximize both the social and environmental benefits of this transformative enterprise.

You can check out more information about monarch monitoring and how it contributes to our understanding of the species’ biology and conservation by visiting www.monarchnet.org and watching the recent Google Earth Tour on monarch migration. I was contacted by Atlantic Public Media, a group that is working on a new way of using Google Earth to demonstrate the wonders of “species on the move.” The result is a pretty cool video that can be seen below.

Top photograph: Tim Hamilton / Flickr, Creative Commons
Center photograph: Katja Schulz / Flickr, Creative Commons

Goin' Fishing for a Solutions-Driven Community

May 23, 2013

Learning Exchanges for Conservation group

Communications Coordinator

What does sustainability mean to you? To SESYNC, it can mean meeting human needs in an equitable way, while supporting the natural systems upon which present and future life depends. This concept of sustainability is especially relevant when applied to our appetite for seafood: in many instances, we are harvesting fish stocks faster than they can reproduce and catching unwanted or unsellable species, called “bycatch,” that are discarded.

Overfishing is a major socio-environmental problem within the marine realm—it’s jeopardizing both ocean ecosystems and the food security of the billion-plus people that depend on seafood as their primary source of protein. Over the past several decades, we have come to understand that the oceans’ bounties are in fact highly sensitive and terminable. People from every corner of the globe have responded by making positive changes from ocean to table, implementing sustainable fishing practices and making informed, sustainable consumer choices at restaurants and stores.

One of the most effective tools for improving the vitality of fisheries has been to foster communication between fishers and other fisheries stakeholders. That’s where SESYNC researchers Lekelia (Kiki) Jenkins and S. Hoyt Peckham come in.

Earlier this month, Drs. Jenkins and Peckham hosted a workshop at our Annapolis facility to identify lessons learned for how to best organize and conduct fisher learning exchanges—meetings that provide fishers with the opportunity to share challenges and solutions—and to develop a research plan for determining which elements of these exchanges lead to conservation outcomes. Because fisher exchanges are produced all over the world, Drs. Jenkins and Peckham were also interested in conducting comparative analyses, as well as bridging these communities—from Mexico to Malaysia and Madagascar to the Caribbean—to establish an international network of learning exchange practitioners.

This workshop, comprised of participants and organizers from the fisheries, as well as the academic, NGO, and governmental sectors, had actionability on their minds: workshop products should have a real application beyond their research relevance. In their 2½ days together, participants outlined a guide for practitioners to create their own learning exchanges, as well as a research plan to empirically identify best practices through comparative research of ongoing exchanges. Both address the ultimate socio-environmental goal of improving both marine ecosystem health and the wellbeing of fisher communities.

At SESYNC, the other core staff and I had a lot of fun as flies on the wall, watching the interactions between group members and how they used the open space of our facilities. In one of the most meaningful moments for participants during the workshop, the group collected around the kitchen to share personal stories about their experiences with learning exchanges, and the successes they’ve seen borne of them. The profound, shared impact of these individuals’ work laid the framework for building communities amongst fishermen and organizers of fisher exchanges—the central objective defined by Drs. Jenkins and Peckham in their workshop proposal.

We’ll be sharing final results and products from this workshop as they become available, so watch our website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed for updates

Learning exchange stories
Participants gather in the SESYNC kitchen to share personal stories about learning exchange successes.

Picking crabs
Participants enjoy a night of picking blue crabs, the Maryland state crustacean!

Promise & Peril in Assessing Nature’s Value

May 17, 2013

Limits of Ingenuity

Faculty Research Assistant

Research Program Manager

Last Monday on May 6, SESYNC’s Research Program Manager Jessica Marx and Environmental Science Research Assistant Kelly Hondula attended an event at Resources for the Future, co-sponsored by SESYNC, entitled “Responding to Ecological Loss: The Promise and Limits of Ingenuity.” This interdisciplinary and diverse panel—moderated by SESYNC Director of Social Science & Policy, Jim Boyd—brought together scholars, policymakers, and business folks to discuss how technological advancement and conservation priorities can work in concert with each other rather than as opposing forces. When faced with looming ecological loss, can technological innovation develop solutions to vast environmental problems? The panelists tackled this question through a variety of lenses—from scholarly disciplines ranging from economic history to psychology, and from both an NGO and corporate perspective.

Examining the value of nature from historical and psychological perspectives can provide insight into decision-making processes that influence and alleviate present-day problems. The economists argued that the historical loss of natural capital progressed alongside advancements in intellectual and social capital, although at a great cost. A contradiction that the panelists tried to resolve was: as natural capital is lost and ecological resources are degraded, do we value what is left more due to scarcity, or less due to generations adopting new baselines of what is acceptable? The value of nature has certainly shifted over time—not only its economic value, but its inherent and biophysical values. As a psychologist on the panel noted, our perception of what is nature has shifted too—from something “out there,” whether we classify nature as the wilderness or as something we humans are a part of, to even the development of “technological” natures that attempt to mimic natural objects and landscapes.

This discussion made clear that the value of nature spans disciplines and cannot be accurately represented by traditional market ideology. Although we intuitively know that values such as ethics, emotion, and the importance of biodiversity shape our decision-making processes, these forces aren’t currently accounted for in the price signals that have historically led to losses in the natural functioning of socio-environmental systems. The psychologists argued that it would be incredibly naïve to think that we even understand the full extent of the value we’ve lost in ecosystems. Therefore, assigning economic value to resources cannot be the only method we use to combat ecological loss. This idea brought consensus among the panelists: innovation and ingenuity of institutions rather than of technology is where the best opportunities lie in tackling lost ecological functions.

Using the market to value assets is our “normal” approach,” but it is only one tool with which we can approach socio-environmental systems. And historically, this method has not been able to develop the social capital necessary to collectively solve our environmental issues that are inherently rooted in a social world. Instead, we need to broaden our understanding of how collective action, cooperation, and trust can be innovative solutions to address society’s needs while maintaining natural systems.

View video of the entire seminar below:

Endangered Species Day 2013

May 16, 2013

ES Day

Postdoctoral Fellow

In 2006, the U.S. Senate designated the third Friday of May as Endangered Species Day to raise awareness about imperiled species and the successes in species recovery due to protections by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the ESA.

Endangered species recovery is a socio-environmental issue because species conservation involves not only the species of concern, but also the human populations that interact with the species. For example, people may depend upon the use of resources, such as timber in an endangered species’ habitat, and protection of that habitat may change or even eliminate that resource’s availability. Wildlife managers must balance these social and economic considerations with the species’ ecological requirements when creating recovery plans to conserve species.

Because each species has a unique combination of specific biological needs, threats, and social context, management actions and recovery goals can vary tremendously among species. However, that does not necessarily mean that recovery plans are inconsistent or not based on the best available science. As a postdoc at SESYNC, my research aims to understand to what extent the recovery targets for endangered species are based on species’ needs, which are relatively transparent, compared to social, political, or economic factors, which are often not explicitly stated in the recovery plans. One of the goals of this work is to encourage more transparency in the managers’ decision-making process. This research would also quantify relationships between recovery targets and various species attributes, which may be used to establish targets for species with too little biological data to set species-specific targets. There are many such species, including the majority of the 338 Hawaiian plant species that are listed under the ESA.

Celebrate this year’s Endangered Species Day by learning about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species in your area, or listening to the success stories about species that have improved their status on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website. To find out more about Endangered Species Day, including events in your area and podcasts by the Endangered Species Coalition, visit www.stopextinction.org/esd.html. If you are in the Washington, D.C., area, consider attending the Endangered Species Day events at the U.S. Botanic Garden on May 17.

Click here to learn more about Judy.

Agriculture & Cultural Landscapes: A Reflection on the AAG Annual Meeting

May 9, 2013

Rachel at farmers market
Rachel at a farmers market in Los Angeles.


Graduate Research Assistant

As one of the discipline’s five themes, human-environment interactions are foundational to the field of Geography. Two-way relationships between humans and the environment affect physical and cultural landscapes. This year’s Association of American Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Los Angeles, CA, offered several thought-provoking sessions around one of the most fundamental human-environment interactions: agriculture.

At this year's meeting, I participated in a paper session entitled “Interracial Dynamics in Urban Agriculture or (How) Race Matters in Urban Agriculture." Presenters addressed human-environment interactions and, in particular, how they play out through cultural landscapes in urban settings. Cultural and ethnic groups engaged in urban agriculture often leave group imprints—which can be structural, aesthetic, linguistic, and ecological—on the community gardens and farms in which they work. For example, in their research on Puerto Rican community gardens in New York City, Laura Saldivar-Tanaka and Marianne E. Krasny point to casitas (small wooden houses used for leisure and cultural activities) and ethnic vegetable crops (such as brujo [oregano], sweet peppers, and kimbombo) as reflecting the gardeners' country of origin.

My paper in development, entitled "Sustainable agriculture in the Jewish community: A Baltimore, Maryland case study," explores a new Jewish cultural landscape emerging on a sustainable community farm. In developing a new cultural landscape, the humans involved on the farm interact with and thus impact the surrounding environment—for instance, by producing etrogs, an otherwise obscure citrus fruit used for ritual activity during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The farm's resultant, bucolic setting reflects Jewish culture, history, and tradition based on crop variety, architecture, and ritual structures.

Cultural landscapes are a product of human impacts on the environment, but the interaction goes both ways: the surrounding environment (be it a rural farm, urban community garden, or individual-size backyard plot) impacts human culture and behavior. Elements of agriculture may be normalized or incorporated into a farmer's preexisting culture or lifestyle. Agricultural activity may also present new educational and economic opportunities. In his paper “Race, Community Geography, and the Development of an Urban Agriculture Curriculum and Community Partnerships at a Predominately African-American University,” Daniel Block described a new urban agricultural initiative at Chicago State University (CSU), a predominantly African-American institution. The urban agricultural project is intended for the development of black entrepreneurship. CSU's initiative intends to use agriculture as a vehicle for professional development and entrepreneurial endeavors.

While in Los Angeles, I spent time investigating the cultural landscapes surrounding agriculture both within and outside the AAG meeting. My investigation took an experiential turn as I checked out several farmers markets throughout the city. The produce, signage, and vendors reflected cultures different from those in my hometown, and this variation was apparent through the markets' cultural landscapes. For example, I learned how to best prepare and serve cactus leaves (a plant non-native to the DC metro area). Try them in a smoothie! As local farming initiatives continue to grow and diffuse throughout the United States, I look forward to exploring the new human-environment interactions and cultural landscapes that emerge.


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