Planet Texas 2050 Enters New Phase with New Chair
By Fernanda Leite and Adam Rabinowitz
As we bid adieu to the 2020–21 academic school year, we want to thank Fernanda Leite, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, for her tremendous service as chair of the Planet Texas 2050. Fernanda helmed our grand challenge through perhaps its most difficult year with poise and determination. She passes the torch to Classics Professor Adam Rabinowitz, who will oversee the implementation of Planet Texas 2050’s six flagship projects. Hear from both Fernanda and Adam about this important transition.
From Fernanda Leite:
This past year has been one of marked change — in the ways we think about our health, our security, our families, our social safety net. The pandemic has opened our eyes to what is tenuous, what is lasting, and what we must cling to and protect at all costs.
At the same time, our planet is also changing in ways that threaten our future security.
Our Planet Texas 2050 team has been paying attention, and we’ve been changing, too, in response.
In our early days, Planet Texas 2050 began by launching a host of distinct projects addressing everything from indoor air quality and watershed urbanization to hospital evacuations during floods. Important topics, all of them, but they kept us fragmented and siloed. So this past year, we took a new direction and decided to invest in a set of six interrelated “flagships.” These four-year projects will address major issues related to growth and climate change that have come to light and allow us to focus our efforts. These include biodiversity and changing landscapes; environmental justice; equitable and regenerative cities; historical responses to climate change; employing advanced modeling to help with climate emergencies; and using new food and social vulnerability maps to better prepare for and respond to disasters. We see these as crucial areas of research for our growing and changing state.
As chair for the 2020–2021 academic year, I feel honored and grateful that I have been a part of the formation of these key projects. I’m also very proud of our team’s continued effort to invest in the arts and education because they are key to making these critical issues real and personally relevant — not abstract, vague, and hard to follow.
As we charge forward, we at Planet Texas 2050 have turned our focus to our future, planning and investing in our legacy by seeking more external funding. That will ensure that the value of our work extends beyond our programmatic timeframe.
I am excited to see what difference we will make. And I know as the new chair, Adam Rabinowitz, associate professor in the Department of Classics who is one of the grand challenge’s founding researchers, will shepherd Planet Texas 2050 into its next phase with dedication and dependability.
From Adam Rabinowitz:
In early 2017, when I accepted an invitation to sit down in a room with six faculty members I’d never met to create an ambitious and pathbreaking interdisciplinary Grand Challenge project focused on sustainability, I didn’t know what to expect. As I spoke with these colleagues — from the Jackson School of Geosciences, Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, English, Urban Planning, the Bureau of Economic Geology, even from Astronomy — I struggled to understand how my work as an archaeologist could fit into a “moonshot” project to make Texas more resilient in the future.
“I can’t imagine research that doesn’t involve crossing boundaries between disciplines and colleges, that doesn’t include a commitment to partnership with community stakeholders, and that doesn’t connect the past to the present and to the future.”
I could not have imagined at the time where these first conversations would lead or the transformative opportunities they would create. Now I can’t imagine research that doesn’t involve crossing boundaries between disciplines and colleges, that doesn’t include a commitment to partnership with community stakeholders, and that doesn’t connect the past to the present and to the future.
In January 2018, just a year after we first gathered, the Planet Texas 2050 Grand Challenge was launched. By then, our interdisciplinary group, enriched with the addition of new members and new perspectives, had begun to identify ways in which our very different activities could connect and grow together. I had never known, for example, that I had colleagues at UT who could carry out isotopic analyses relevant to archaeology, which I’d previously worked on only with foreign collaborators. Planet Texas 2050 was already building the spaces in which disciplinary silos could be broken open and transdisciplinary research could begin.
“Our research into climate stressors, equity, and resilience relies as much on storytelling as on computer modeling to confront the challenges Texas will face in the coming decades.”
In contrast to Grand Challenge projects at other institutions, our project incorporated the humanities and the arts alongside STEM disciplines from the beginning, and our research into climate stressors, equity, and resilience relies as much on storytelling as on computer modeling to confront the challenges Texas will face in the coming decades.
Over the following years, an assortment of loosely related initial projects expanded to include new research and engagement activities. These activities grew into an integrated set of six flagship projects, which outgoing Chair Fernanda Leite, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, guided with a steady hand to their launch last year.
“I look back over the past few years with both pride and wonder at how far we’ve come since those first meetings. I know that my participation in Planet Texas 2050 has changed me significantly as a researcher and as a person.”
Now, as we enter the grand challenge’s fifth year, and as we begin to emerge from Zoom rooms to reopen labs and meet again in person with our stakeholders and collaborators, Planet Texas 2050 moves into a new phase. I am honored to serve as chair at a moment when our flagship projects are maturing and settling into the shared task of preparing Texas for a sustainable and equitable future.
Our relationships with external partners like the City of Austin, the Austin Independent School District, EcoRise, and the Museum of South Texas are deepening; our interdisciplinary teams are pursuing innovative research into biodiversity, climate history, and urban resilience; and our longstanding collaboration with the Texas Advanced Computing Center is producing modeling and visualization platforms that will be used by the State of Texas to respond to extreme weather and natural disasters.
I look back over the past few years with both pride and wonder at how far we’ve come since those first meetings. I know that my participation in Planet Texas 2050 has changed me significantly as a researcher and as a person. I hope to bring this understanding of the development of our grand challenge and of the transformative effect it has had on me to my service as chair.
In the coming year, we will focus on creating stronger connections across our six flagships, developing deeper collaborative relationships with our community partners, and providing programming for the public and for the university community to engage more people in our work. As we pass the project’s halfway point and our goals come into sharper focus, we intend to pay close attention to the ways in which we can measure success — in the eyes of the academic community, of our community partners and stakeholders, and of Texas.
I want to thank Fernanda for her tremendous leadership over the past year, with its innumerable challenges both individually and across the state of Texas and the world. We would not be where we are without her direction and guidance. I invite you to join us on the next leg of this journey. Please look for invitations to events sponsored by Planet Texas 2050 in the coming months, and please reach out to me or to any Planet Texas 2050 participant to explore opportunities for collaboration. Together, we can design a better Texas than we can alone.
Please join us on this journey.
Planet Texas 2050 is a research grand challenge at The University of Texas at Austin. We’re a team of more than 150 researchers across all disciplines working together over the next decade to find ways to make our state more resilient in the face of extreme weather events and rapid population growth. Follow us on Twitter, visit our website, and come back to our blog for updates.
Fernanda Leite, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. Her focus is construction engineering and project management. Her technical interests include product and process modeling, information technology for project management, building energy performance and information technology-supported construction safety management.
Adam Rabinowitz, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Classics and assistant director of the Institute of Classical Archaeology at The University of Texas at Austin. He is a 2002 Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and a field archaeologist with twenty-five years of archaeological field experience at Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sites in Italy, England, Israel, Tunisia, and Ukraine. His archaeological research focuses on daily life, domestic architecture, commensal practices and the lived experience of culture contact.