J-WAFS awards $1.8 million in first round of seed-grant funding

Nine grants of $200,000 for two years have been awarded to researchers from 11 MIT departments

MIT News

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has announced its first round of seed-grant funding to MIT researchers.

The J-WAFS program supports the efforts of MIT faculty, labs, and centers to work toward solutions for water and food security that are energy-efficient and environmentally benign. Thirty-four proposals were submitted, encompassing innovative research in food safety and science; water supply, purification, and testing; environmental science and engineering; and development.

“We are delighted by the high level of interest in the grant program, with faculty from across the Institute responding to this first J‑WAFS call for proposals,” says John Lienhard, director of J-WAFS and the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food. “The decision-making process was a difficult one, with many worthwhile proposals vying for limited funds. We have selected a diverse and impressive set of projects addressing water and food security issues using methodological approaches from a variety of disciplines.”

These disciplines include areas such as biology, chemistry, atmospheric and climate science, manufacturing, bioengineering, chemical engineering, environmental engineering, economic analysis, and anthropology.

J‑WAFS was launched last fall to coordinate and promote water and food research at MIT, emphasizing the deployment of effective technologies, programs, and policies that will have a measurable and international impact as humankind adapts to a rapidly expanding and evolving population on a changing planet.

The J-WAFS seed grants are intended to help innovative, generally early-stage projects that can benefit from seed funding in order to establish proof of concept or gather critical data that will position projects to qualify for other sources of funding or that are likely produce a significant, high-impact result without subsequent awards. Research with translational potential is favored. While many of the selected PIs have conducted prior research related to food or water, a few were new to this area. Funded PIs include both junior and senior MIT faculty.

Consistent with J‑WAFS’s goal of promoting the development of water and food-related technologies, several of the funded projects are aimed at technology development. Others apply MIT’s strength in various areas of basic research, interdisciplinary modeling, or supply chain analysis to improve management of water and food products and resources. Among the interdisciplinary research projects, those on crop productivity and on urban water systems are built on cross-school collaborations that partner MIT engineers with urban planners or humanities researchers. Several of the projects focused on issues or implementation in particular geographic areas, including India, China, central Africa, and the U.S.

“The first round of J-WAFS seed grant funding exemplifies the scientific, engineering, business, and interdisciplinary strengths that MIT can bring to bear on a wide range of water and food security issues, in developed and developing countries alike,” Lienhard says.

Food safety was well represented in the proposals and in the funded projects. Drawing on MIT’s expertise in disciplines including chemical sensing, environmental modeling, and supply chain analysis, funded projects will examine mechanisms to identify and control the presence of toxins (such as heavy metals), microbial contaminants, and adulteration by introduced substances, such as antibiotics.

A team led by MIT biology professor Anthony Sinskey, for example, will work on the development of a bioassay for a particular poultry product. Based on prior work showing that certain small-farmer supply chain and farming practices make poultry a distinctly risky product, the team proposes the development of a robust bioassay for toxicity related to likely impurities in chicken meat. Their novel approach would fundamentally transform unknown toxicant identification by measuring the biological effects of tainted foods rather than testing for one or a few likely toxicants at a time. As international import and export of food products continues to grow, this work will address important considerations in food safety and regulation, international trade, and public trust in our food supply.

A different approach to monitoring — for analyzing and managing water quality for chemical, physical, and microbial contaminants — is being developed by associate professors Rohit Karnik and John Hart of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and senior lecturer Chintan Vaishnav of the MIT Sloan School of Management. Monitoring is integral to identifying safe sources of drinking water, tracking disease outbreaks, and addressing sources of contamination, but field test kits for water quality analysis suffer from limited accuracy and cannot analyze all relevant parameters, such as low levels of arsenic contamination. Centralized laboratories are more expensive and require transportation of large volumes of water samples, something that is not practical in developing countries where there is a significant need to monitor water quality.

The engineering team on this project will develop a new technology to enable water samples to be preserved in a compact manner. Alongside this effort, MIT Sloan will develop a capacity-demand model of the current water quality management system in India. By developing implementation protocols based on local practices and capabilities, the team aims to maximize the practical use and effectiveness of the monitoring technology.

A full list of the new J-WAFS seed-grant recipients and their projects follows:

“A Bioassay-Based Approach to Food Safety in China” PIs: Anthony Sinskey, Department of Biology; Stacy Springs, Center for Biomedical Innovation; and Vishal Vaidya, Harvard Medical School

“A Data-Driven Approach to Managing Food Security in Global Supply Chains” PIs: Retsef Levi, Tauhid Zaman, and Yanchnong Zheng, MIT Sloan School of Management

“Advancing Water and Food Sustainability through Improved Understanding of Uncertainties in Climate Change and Climate Variability” PIs: Susan Solomon, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Department of Chemistry; and Kenneth Strzepek, Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change

“Electrochemically Modulated Separation Processes for the Treatment of Contaminated Water Sources” PI: Alan Hatton, Department of Chemical Engineering

“Enabling Distributed Water Quality Management by Dry Sample Preservation and Centralized Analysis” PIs: Rohit Karnik and John Hart, Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Chintan Vaishnav, MIT Sloan School of Management

“Engineered Nitrogen Fixation: Expression in Plant Organelles” PI: Christopher Voigt, Department of Biological Engineering

“Leverage Points: Opportunities for Increasing Food Production in Developing Countries” PIs: Dennis McLaughlin, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Erica James, Anthropology

“Quantifying Mercury Contamination of Rice and its Impact on Food Security in China” PIs: Noelle Selin, Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; and Valerie Karplus, MIT Sloan School of Management

“Strategies for Urban Stormwater Wetlands Los Angeles and Houston” PIs: Alan Berger, Department of Urban Studies and Planning; and Heidi Nepf, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering


Press inquiries:

We're hiring! Learn more and apply