As we cope with the coronavirus pandemic and the many dimensions of its impact, I am not the only one struck by the indelible ways our lives have changed: from our understanding of medicine and global supply chains to the way we interact with friends and colleagues and care for our families, or adjust to abrupt changes in our routine. Indeed, some of the most arresting images that have emerged are the altered landscapes—deserted streets, parks, and landmarks, absent of people save for essential workers.
It may be early to contemplate what we can take from this challenging time, but one aspect that has made an impression on me is the way in which our reduced footprint has affected the environment on a scale we couldn't have imagined several months ago. In New York City alone, the decrease in traffic, air pollution, and morning energy usage is dramatic. These are artificial changes, to be sure, and one should not look to disasters to help us clean up our planet. But the evidence that our human actions can have a significant effect should reinforce our commitment to the environment and our pledge to contribute to a sustainable—and enduring—future.
It's the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this month, and NYU remains as dedicated as ever to reaching our goals as an institution—in our research, class work, and student engagement.
One development I'm particularly proud of is the International Universities Climate Alliance, a partnership we helped launch this month with 40 institutions around the world whose mission is to support climate research and communicate it to the public. NYU also recently received an updated STARS ranking, which is the leading environmental ratings system among higher education institutions. We earned a Gold rating—one of its highest tiers—and are a leader among the top private research universities that participated. We also remain on track with our commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 50 percent from our baseline by 2025 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040.
I was heartened to see that after months of social distancing in Shanghai, as seniors return to resume in-person classes, construction of NYU Shanghai's new campus—which is being built to achieve LEED certification—has started again. NYU School of Global Public Health's new home at 708 Broadway, which is scheduled to open in 2021, will have thicker window glass to minimize the need for artificial heating and cooling, and carpeting made from recycled materials removed from the Pacific Ocean. At our Brooklyn campus, work also continues on 370 Jay, which attained a LEED Platinum ranking. And much research about sustainability carries on. An NYU Abu Dhabi scholar is developing a process to make cement that results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. At NYU Tandon, a team of researchers is studying the impact of flooding on urban communities and how to mitigate them.
While the images that have saturated the media during this time of paused activity—of clearer water in the Venice canals, bluer skies at the Taj Mahal, or less smog in Los Angeles—may be temporary, our commitments as a University persist. Our altered daily habits may just pay long-term dividends to the earth as we all collectively grow more comfortable with conducting some of our work virtually and forgoing unnecessary carbon-intensive travel. This month in particular, as we celebrate the anniversary of Earth Day, wherever you are in the world, I hope we can all take some inspiration to remain dedicated to sustainable practices that can serve the environment for our lifetimes—and generations to come.
Tim Bromage at NYU's College of Dentistry studies the composition of water and other substances to better understand the environment. In partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, he is analyzing water samples from Samoa's Upolu island, detecting elemental chemistry and microplastics with a method patented at NYU. The research aims to explain deteriorating island biodiversity and the health of coral reefs. Above, a sample collected in Samoa.
NYU Stern's Center for Sustainable Business, under the leadership of Tensie Whelan (above), developed a Return on Sustainability Investment (ROSI) methodology to help companies monetize the benefits of sustainable practices. It also aids CFOs and investors in measuring and reporting on sustainability initiatives' financial performance. ©NYU Photo Bureau: Ferrari.
Our University-wide COVID-19 responses are continuing on campus and beyond. AirCo, an NYU Tandon Urban Future Lab company that developed clean technology to extract carbon dioxide from the air to combine it with water and create vodka, has redirected its entire production capacity to produce hand sanitizer, which is being donated to New York City entities.
NYU Steinhardt's Educational Theatre alum Spica Wobbe ('03) shows the connection between recycled materials and recollection in her work with senior citizens. As a puppeteer, Wobbe helps them craft pop-up cards from repurposed items. When the pandemic shifted to remote interaction, she and teaching partner Karen Oughtred created videos to show how to use family photos as inspiration and turn them into 3D cards. Above, a sample card Wobbe made of a trip to Taipei with her husband and mother.
As I mentioned, we were proud to receive a Gold rating from the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS) from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)—which is the most respected sustainability rating system in our field—coming out ahead of many of our urban peers.
Gallatin's Michael Brittenham ('20) is among several students who received a Green Grant from the NYU Office of Sustainability. His team's project to build an urban farm and homeless resiliency center in an abandoned Brooklyn parking lot will be shifted to the summer, but the pandemic underscores the issues they hope to combat. The project aims to connect issues of urban sustainability, food distribution, and homelessness awareness through a comprehensive architectural design. Above, the original main construction team. ©Axelle Schoeb (CAS '20).
Social distancing on a global scale allowed for unexpected consequences for climate change, including reduced air travel and consumption. Many in our community also participated in Virtual Earth Month, with a range of events (remote, of course!) and habits, such as bringing your own bag to the grocery store and drinking tap water—all in service of a more sustainable future.
Provost Katy Fleming and I were delighted to announce the appointment of Jack H. Knott as the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Jack is currently a political scientist at the University of Southern California, and brings expertise in guiding a complex, interdisciplinary school. He will join NYU on August 1.
I continue to be grateful for the ability to maintain some regular routines as we navigate these unusual circumstances. I regularly connect with colleagues on Zoom, including those in my lab, where we are currently studying the coronavirus. The above rendering is from a computational study of a surface protein of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), interacting with two compounds we assembled. The protein is critical for viral entry into cells, and we are looking at methods for disrupting this process.