CUE Research Fund

To help facilitate high-level research at the University of Toronto, the Centre for Urban Environments (CUE) is pleased to provide funding on a competitive basis to graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and faculty affiliated with CUE. Applications can be submitted by any CUE member based at the University of Toronto Mississauga, regardless of discipline, so long as the proposed research advances CUE’s mission of being a leader in urban environmental research and sustainability. Research that bridges across traditional disciplines is particularly encouraged, with the awarding of proposals spread equally across the social and natural sciences.

The maximum amount of funding available per project is $2,000. Additional information regarding the application process and required documentation is available here. Those interested in applying are also encouraged to consult our list of past winners. A call for proposals will occur in January each year with a February deadline. 

If you are not currently a member of CUE and would like to be affiliated with the centre, please contact the Director at cue@utoronto.ca.

 

2021 Winners

 

Project Title: Testing for Adaptation to Urbanization in a Native Plant of Conservation Importance   

Project Description: Urbanization is radically altering global landscapes at an unprecedented rate and is considered a primary driver of Earth’s biodiversity crisis . While urbanization often acts as an ecological filter for species that can tolerate urban environments ,we know almost nothing about whether populations can genetically adapt to cities . Thus, it remains unclear which species can evolve to endure the pressures of urbanization. This project will test the hypothesis that urbanization drives adaptive divergence in plant populations . This hypothesis will be tested using Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed), a perennial native of North America which supports 450+ generalist and 10+ host-specific herbivores in Ontario , including the endangered monarch butterfly. SophieThis project will  analyze the degree to which different metrics of urbanization predict genetic divergence between urban and rural populations. This outcome would provide transformative support for a new initiative advocating for the adoption of urban areas as viable habitat for the monarch butterfly, a species at the brink of extinction.  A lack of adaptive signal would reveal that urgent, targeted conservation strategies may be needed to maintain biodiversity in urbanizing landscapes.  

Student:  Sophie Breitbart

Supervisor: Prof. Helene Wagner


 

Project Title: Recipes for Relating: Ecologies of Eating in Urban Egypt

Project Description: This research explores ecologies of eating in different cities and neighborhoods of Egypt to better understand local foodways and the ecological relations between urban and rural that condition them. This research is within the growing interest in food within a nexus of environmental degradation in the Global South. The geopolitical field site of Egypt is characterized by economic and nutritional necessity, in which more than half of the population is faced with an everyday dilemma of eating with no affordable access to a fulfilling diet. This research puts in conversation the anthropologies of food and human-animal relations, a conversation that has been considerably absent in the Middle East. This novel approach frames food as something that not only traverses the body, but brings the body into social and ecological relation with plants and animals. NohaThis research aims to bring together home-food rearing practices, food choices, and human-animal intimacies to nuance our understandings of nutrition, food resilience, and rural-urban linkages in the Middle East. Ethnographic fieldwork and semi-structured interviews will be conducted in several middle and working-class urban neighborhoods. In attending to resilient ecological practices as well as people’s modes of rearing food,  raising animals, and taking food as thought, this research proposes a different approach to eating one which might improve people’s relationships with nonhuman animals, environments, and the cities in which they live.  

Student:  Noha Fikry

Supervisor: Prof. Zoë H Wool


 

Project Title: Assessing regional effects of urbanization on caddisfly communities

Project Description: Broad-scale effects of urbanization create predictable changes in physical, chemical, and biological metrics in streams, such as altered flow rates, reduced channel complexity, increased temperature, and reduced biological diversity. However, there are unknowns regarding what factors can drive differential responses of urban stream communities in different geographic areas. Community assembly, an important factor in understanding how urbanization will impact an ecosystem, is the result of a combination of hierarchical local filters (such as species interactions and abiotic conditions) and regional filters (such as the regional species pool). In order to fully understand the effects of urbanization on communities, the ways in which urban filters interact with local and regional effects must be studied. So far, studies on urban stream ecology considering the effects of the species pool have been fairly localized. KellyBy contrast, in our understanding of the geographic variability in urban stream ecology, the effects of the regional species pools (which are to some extent a product of historical biogeography) are relatively unknown. The aquatic insect order Trichoptera   (caddisflies) will be used to understand the potential for regional variability in community response to urbanization in North America.

Student:  Kelly Murray-Stoker 

Supervisor: Prof. Shannon McCauley


 

Project Title: Urban assembly and diversity of root-associated bacteria in a model legume

Project Description:  Bacteria and fungi comprising the microbiome are important for plant community assembly, physiology, and response to stressors. As bacteria and fungi can have different functional roles relative to rhizobia, the function of the root microbiome is a multifaceted and emergent property of the ecological roles played by rhizobia, bacteria, and fungi. Alterations to microbiome structure could therefore strongly impact plant communities and associated ecosystem functions. Urban environments are among the most dominant forms of anthropogenic disturbance on Earth, frequently altering multiple biotic and abiotic environmental factors like increased impervious surface cover, elevated temperatures, higher pollution levels (e.g., air, water, light, noise), and increased nutrient deposition. Spatial variation in soil chemistry and nutrients driven by urbanization can affect the composition of soil microbial communities. DavidAs plant microbiome assembly is ultimately determined by the microbes present in the local soil community, changes to soil microbial composition can affect plant microbiome assembly and ecological function. By quantifying the urban-driven changes to microbiome structure, this will build on my previous research showing that urbanization alters investment in the mutualism to more comprehensively examine the community- and ecosystem-level consequences of urbanization.

Student:  David Murray-Stoker

Supervisor: Prof. Marc Johnson

 


Project Title: Tracking people’s movements in treed spaces to assess socio-ecological experience

Project Description:  Urban trees are important to support healthy cities. However, most research on the benefits of urban trees focuses on city-wide correlations between tree abundance and health indicators. For example, people who live amongst abundant tree canopy are physically and mentally healthier and walk more. While this supports investment in nature-based solutions, including urban trees, the existing evidence represents correlation rather than causation. Such correlative approaches do not capture the direct effect of urban trees on people’s experience, given that they assume contact with trees occurs, and may poorly account for factors that co-vary with tree abundance (e.g., more canopy cover in high income neighborhoods). CamiloTo demonstrate how urban trees influence people’s experience, urban ecosystem research must transition from pattern-based approaches to generating process-based understanding. Methods that can help collect in-situ data on people’s experiences when contact with trees is occurring can help assess changes in experience.  This project will develop an innovative GPS-tracking method to examine people’s movements in small, urban greenspaces with trees. This will help answer the following question associated with a larger research program: How does the removal of urban trees affect people’s experiences with urban trees, including their perception of them and the physical activities they support, such as walking? By combining advances made in urban ecology and human geography, a robust method will be developed that will assess the casual pathways of how urban trees influence people’s experiences.

Student: Camilo Ordóñez

Supervisor: Prof. Tenley Conway


 

Project Title: Environmental justice in Ontario: an investigation of ambient benzene pollution and environmental inequality in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area

Project Description: One third of Canadians live near major roadways and are exposed to transportation-related air pollution (TRAP). Exposure to TRAP is associated with increases in cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary events, asthma, reduced lung function, cancer, and adverse birth outcomes, all of which contribute to elevated rates of mortality among Canadians. Most research on TRAP has focused on Criteria Air Pollutants that include NOx, sulphur oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and ozone, however, recent research has highlight elevated concentrations of ambient benzene for many Canadian cities, which is a component of gasoline and a Group 1 carcinogen. When assessing exposure, it is crucial to consider environmental inequality - a phenomenon in which specific populations, typically disadvantaged or minority populations, are disproportionately burdened with environmentally-driven stressors and related health outcomes. Ambient benzene exposure is generated by vehicle emissions with distinct spatial patterns where it is anticipated that concentrations will be highest near major roadways and gas stations. SophiaThe spatial distribution of ambient benzene and commonly measured transportation-related air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx) will be characterized and used as an indicator of TRAP. The social determinants of health influencing identified disparities in exposure to ambient benzene and the related health outcomes among dissemination areas (DAs) in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) will also be identified. The GTHA was selected because ambient benzene was identified to exceed Ontario’s Ambient Air Quality Criteria for unsafe ambient concentrations of contaminants.

Student: Sophie Roussy

Supervisor: Prof. Matthew Adams


 

Project Title: Schoolchildren’s exposure to air pollution in Rwanda: How Does Education                                        Help?

Project Description:  Africa represents a critical area of scientific inquiry towards understanding the environmental and health consequences of air pollution. Rwanda is currently the fastest growing country in Africa and pollution exposure is a particular concern, with an estimated 3,000 premature deaths annually caused by air pollution. Children are highly susceptible to air pollution due to their high breathing rates, developing lung structures and immature immune systems; they are a population of particular interest when assessing the impacts of air pollution. An emerging body of evidence has associated air pollution in schools with adverse health effects in schoolchildren, which includes increased respiratory symptoms, hospital admissions, absences from school, reduced lung function, increased medication use in cEgidehildren with asthma, decreased lung function and negative effects on academic performance. Educating children is an important stage in the development of a person's behaviour and social awareness. Walking trips to school are often along major roadways where air pollution is high, which is especially problematic in Rwanda because of the high concentration of aging diesel vehicle (high emissions). The primary objective of the project is to identify if air pollution education can influence children’s behaviour in Rwanda, specifically reduce their air pollution risk to transportation related air pollution during their trip to and from school. One of the major strengths of this project will be its emphasis on communication, through which children and parents will be made aware of the choices they can make to immediately reduce their exposure to air pollution.

Researcher:  Dr. Egide Kalisa

Supervisor: Prof. Matthew Adams


Project Title:  Accessing Nature: A Map and App for University of Toronto Students

Project Description:  While sustainability initiatives are being foregrounded across the UofT campuses, the focus on accessing nature and mental wellness is more recent, and is increasingly recognized as a vital area of research. Unlike many other Toronto-based, urban educational institutions, UofT, owing to its many, expansive and varied natural spaces, is uniquely poised to address this horizon on its own campuses. Consequently UofT has a unique opportunity to develop and possibly provide a model for how urban campuses can function, not only as natural spaces for their students, but also as sites of improved mental health. Different kinds of spaces (e.g., open fields, woods, wetlands, etc.) will be classified and correlated with different kinds of mobility (walking, cycling, etc.). StephenThis map, as well as its proposed navigational app, are unique in that they are being developed by and for UofT students.The project will look at:

a. To what extent could exposure to nature be a benefit to tri-campus UofT students facing  unique pressures related to academic performance and precarious job prospects,especially in a time of COVID 19?

b. To what extent could the UofT campus serve as a locus for student access to nature?

c. What “natural spaces” across the campuses are available and accessible for students?

d. What is the most efficacious way to make this information available, meaningful and user-      friendly for students?

Researcher:  Prof. Stephen Scharper

             



 

2020 Winners

Project title: Impacts of urbanization on freshwater insect metacommunitiesIlia Ferzoco

Project description: In an increasingly urbanized world, wetlands provide essential services to cities. Stormwater management ponds (SWMPs) play a critical role in collecting excess rainfall and pollutants, reducing flooding and acting as buffers to filter the surrounding environment. These ponds are often treated as aquatic solutions to terrestrial problems yet they may also provide discrete novel habitat for aquatic biodiversity including aquatic insects, which are important indicators of ecosystem health. This project will assess whether there are associations between aquatic insect community composition, local environmental stressors and species dispersal and life history traits in urban and non-urban stormwater ponds. Ilia will use metacommunity principles to inform management of these urban wetlands. This work may help to inform freshwater conservation frameworks in cities and provide insight into freshwater community responses to human-induced environmental change.

Student: Ilia Ferzoco

Supervisor: Prof. Shannon McCauley 


Project title: Urban neighbourhoods and the double burden of disease in low- and middle-income countriesIrenius Konkor

Project description: Using Ghana as a case study, this research will examine how rapidly evolving urban neighbourhoods in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are impacting health. Even though many LMICs are still grappling with the effects of infectious diseases (IDs) such as HIV and malaria, growing evidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including stroke, hypertension and diabetes significantly impact health outcomes. Scholars have described the co-occurrence of both infectious diseases (IDs) and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) as the double burden of disease. Despite the co-occurrence of both conditions in LMICs, scholars and policymakers continue to approach them independently.The study will enhance understanding of the double burden of disease at the neighbourhood level and point to the need for health policymakers and practitioners to adopt integrated approaches for the management of both health conditions.

Student: Irenius Konkor 

Supervisor: Prof. Vincent Kuuire 

Past Winners

Project title: Monitoring Long-Term Forest Change in Suburbanizing Landscape

Project description: The primary study area for this research is the Credit Valley Watershed and Region of Peel, which has undergone rapid suburbanization since the mid-1900s. The project aimed to leverage the unique spatial coverage and temporal depth offered by Landsat data, supported by aerial photography and field data, to model spatial-temporal periods of forest growth and decline in a suburbanizing landscape. It also seeks to explore relationships between observed forest changes and both natural and anthropogenic drivers using historical environmental records, population and infrastructure expansion statistics and policy information.

Student(s): Mitchell Bonney

Supervisor: Prof. Yuhong He


Project title: Performance Evaluation of Low-Cost Sensors for Urban Air Pollution Modelling

Project description: This research aimed to examine the validity of non-regulatory instruments used in citizen science for air quality projects. Ambient air conditions in Mississauga and Hamilton were sampled using EPA certified instruments. For this project, a direct  comparison between an EPA grade monitor (Ecotech Serinus 40) and low-cost sensor (Aeroqual Nitrogen Dioxide Sensor) was conducted to assess the validity and reliability of data produced by the lower-cost sensor. This project may help reduce confusion in the market place and in research of commercial air sensors performance compared to reference instruments by assuring these monitors produce data of sufficient quality.

Student(s): Anna Shadrova

Supervisor: Prof. Matthew Adams


Project title: The Effect of Salt Pollution on Dragonfly Survival and Success in Urban Environments

Project description: The salinization of freshwater habitats is causing decreases in aquatic biodiversity on a global scale. This project sought to quantify both direct and indirect effects of salinity exposure on dragonfly persistence. Aquatic larval dragonflies were directly exposed to environmentally realistic concentrations of salt and measured for growth rate and survival; while terrestrial adult dragonflies were tested for indirect effects of salinity exposure during their earlier life stages by quantifying individual size and population sex ratio.  

Student(s): Rosalind Murray

Supervisor: Prof. Shannon McCauley