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Consortia Online Events
Castle Lecture Series
Noon–1pm
Talks are held monthly and are webcast live. Videos archived here.

Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security
9 October 2014
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 12, 2014
Archive available here.

Scots in the American West Symposium
8 August 2013
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 14, 2013
Archive available here.

The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans
11 October 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 10, 2012
Archive available here.

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet
March 1, 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 18, 2011
Archive available here.
Related Resources
Discover related research, exhibitions, videos, web features, and teacher materials:

Mysteries of the Universe »
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Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet


2010 Grand Challenges Award Projects

Level One Projects


Guests view poster presentations at the Climate Change Research Symposium in May 2011.
Fieldwork at an archaeological site in the middle of a contemporary sea lion rookery on San Miguel Island, the westernmost of the California Channel Islands.

Channel Islands Bio-cultural Diversity Working Group
The Channel Islands Bio-cultural Diversity Working Group (CIBD) is a group of scholars from the Smithsonian and external agencies who are focused on understanding the interactions between biodiversity and human activities in ancient and modern times. Given global threats to biodiversity, advancing the interdisciplinary collaboration between biological, physical, and social scientists is crucial to addressing the accelerating impacts of human activities on earth’s ecosystems. The CIBD uses California’s Channel Islands as a model system for understanding biological and cultural diversity and their interactions. Often called a North American Galapagos, California’s Channel Islands offer a remarkable laboratory for investigating issues of biological and cultural diversity on multiple scales and over long time periods (i.e., millennia). During a series of roundtable discussions, meetings, and a large four-day workshop, CIBD scholars will investigate two interrelated questions of broad interdisciplinary significance: 1) What are the factors that shape biodiversity? and 2) How have humans influenced biodiversity through time and across space? Working at the interface of biological and human cultural diversity, the CIBD will integrate the Biodiversity and World Cultures Consortia by exploring the interactions between humans and the natural world.

Related Resources

  • Principal Investigator Torrey Rick discusses his path to becoming Curator of North American Archaeology and Human Environment Interaction at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History – a job that takes him to California's Channel Islands to perform field research.
  • On March 6-7, 2012, a workshop was held at University of California, Santa Barbara on the topic of Understanding human drivers of ecological and evolutionary patterns on the California islands. The event was organized by Smithsonian staff representing the National Museum of Natural History and the National Zoological Park in partnership with staff from the United States Geological Survey and the University of Maryland. Now available for download: list of workshop attendees and their affiliations, and the workshop schedule showing the talks and topics explored during the discussion.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Torben Rick (Principal Investigator)
Terry Chesser

National Museum of Natural History
Robert Fleischer
Jesus Maldonado
Katherine Ralls
Scott Sillett
National Zoological Park

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for World Cultures


Developing and Establishing the North American Orchid Center
The goal of the North American Orchid Center (NAOC) will be to establish a public-private partnership with a mission to conserve, restore, and cultivate orchids native to the United States and Canada. The mission of NAOC will be accomplished through an integrated program that combines research, training, education, and outreach among a partnership of private and public organizations. Partnerships will include federal, state, and private agencies and organizations that are responsible for the conservation and restoration of native species on private and public land.  Partnerships will also include botanical gardens across the continent that will display native orchids in their geographic region. NAOC will include a web-based educational component with a national focus. The first phase of NACO will be developed through a Level Two grant from the Smithsonian with matching funds from private donors. NAOC will be launched in the first phase. The second phase will be the full development of NAOC, a projected 5–10 year effort that will result from federal support for key positions and establishment of an endowment to support development and operation.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Dennis Whigham (Principal Investigator)

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Gary Krupnick

National Museum of Natural History
Charles Fillah

National Zoological Park
Barbara Faust Smithsonian Institution Gardens


Life and the Cosmos: Building the Consortium
How did the Earth form and evolve and where do we come from? What are the conditions necessary to form life-sustaining planets and are we alone in the Universe? These are among the most profound questions mankind can hope to address and lie at the heart of public interest in science, yet are still far from being answered.

Understanding the origin and evolution of life in the Universe is a multidisciplinary problem: from the astrophysics describing the processes giving rise to stars and planets and their environments, and the geology, geophysics, and atmospheric physics of planets, to the chemistry and biology of organic matter and evolution of living organisms. These different aspects are often studied in relative isolation.  However, progress in the last decade or so has highlighted the need for more interaction between these fields.  Expertise in key areas central to these problems now exists at the Smithsonian. The aim of this effort is to assemble a collaboration between Smithsonian units to investigate and fertilize ideas for new cross-disciplinary research on the connection between the cosmos and origin and evolution of life. A symposium to launch the project will be held to gather the experts in relevant disciplines. The collaboration will be formed and steered through this and subsequent, more specialized mini-meetings, with a goal to compete for significant external funding and begin to produce cutting-edge research on life and the cosmos.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Jeremy Drake (Principal Investigator)
Ofer Cohen
Alexander Engell

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Bob Craddock

National Air and Space Museum
Richard Bambach
William DiMichelle
Glenn MacPherson

National Museum of Natural History
Carlos Jaramillo
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe


Reclaiming the Edge: The Anacostia River, Urban Waterways, and Civic Engagement
The Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) is developing a research and educational initiative that focuses on urban waterways, especially rivers, their watersheds, and associated creeks and streams. A collaborative partnership among Smithsonian Institution curators and other scholars will generate ideas, innovative approaches, and dynamic interactive presentations from shared perspectives on environmental justice, civic engagement, ecological conservation, and community development. Along with ACM staff, the collaboration consists of curators and scholars from the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), as well as from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Anacostia Watershed Society.

From the Grand Challenge perspectives of “Understanding the American Experience” and “Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet,” the project will explore the impact of social conditions, environmental burdens, and resource depletion on urban communities; study civic oversight and community involvement on efforts to restore urban waterways in several national and international sites; and uncover cultural and recreational traditions associated with rivers.

The project goal is to reinforce a sense of citizen ownership and responsibility for urban waterways that will lead to direct action and to improvement of waterways in any neighborhood. Among other things, this initiative will support an ACM exhibition on urban waterways (September 2012), the NMAI Hawai’i exhibition (2013), and other Smithsonian-planned exhibitions and scholarly studies.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Gail Lowe (Principal Investigator)

Anacostia Community Museum
Jeffrey Stine

National Museum of American History
Doug Herman

National Museum of the American Indian
Joshua Bell National Museum of Natural History

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Understanding the American Experience



Guests view poster presentations at the Climate Change Research Symposium in May 2011.
Guests view poster presentations at the Climate Change Research Symposium in May 2011.

Smithsonian Climate Change Research Symposium
The Museum Conservation Institute, in conjunction with the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, will be sponsoring a symposium focusing on climate change research within the Smithsonian. This meeting will focus on research within the Smithsonian that addresses climate change and the effects of the world’s changing environment on ecosystems and biodiversity. Topics will include climate monitoring and modeling, and marine and terrestrial interactions with climate, as well as the effects of climate change on the Earth’s environments. This symposium is one of many recent efforts to develop new multidisciplinary research collaborations that will enhance the Smithsonian’s emergence as a leader in the important field of climate change research.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Christine France (Principal Investigator)
Jeff Speakman

Museum Conservation Institute
Torben Rick
Scott Wing

National Museum of Natural History
Melissa McCormick
Dennis Whigham

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Benjamin Turner Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Level Two Projects

The Designing of the Smithsonian Institution's MarineGEO® Program
We will conduct a series of activities to inform the design of a Marine Global Earth Observatory (MarineGEO®) that is organized and operated by the Smithsonian Institution in collaboration with external partners. The general goals of MarineGEO® are to understand the patterns and processes that shape marine ecosystems, and to observe and understand the responses of marine communities, including biodiversity, to global change and local human impacts.  To address specific goals, we seek design input from Smithsonian marine scientists and other experts via working groups, workshops, and symposia. To understand these patterns and processes, we envision a network of observing sites that is strategically placed to understand how biodiversity: 1) varies over space and 2) changes over time. A successful MarineGEO® will incorporate multiple approaches that range from question-driven monitoring of the environment to the use of experiments to understand important biological, ecological, chemical, and physical processes of marine ecosystems. Importantly, the MarineGEO® must be forward-looking, yet adaptable enough to address unanticipated questions of the future. The outcome of our activities will be a white paper with initial recommendations for site selection; sampling design; instrumentation; specific physical, chemical, and biological measurements; and data management.

Related Resources

  • Download the white paper and learn more about the MarineGEO® program, its collaborators, steering committee, sites and facilities, projects and events.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Nancy Knowlton (Principal Investigator)
Carole Baldwin
Allen Collins
Chris Meyer
Lynne Parenti
Valerie Paul
Ellen Strong
Marguerite Toscano

National Museum of Natural History
Pat Megonigal (Principal Investigator)
Whitman Miller (Principal Investigator)
Rick Osman (Principal Investigator)
Ilka Feller
Thomas Jordan
Gerhardt F. Riedel
Greg Ruiz
Donald Weller

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Rob Fleischer

National Zoological Park
Rachel Collin
Harilaos Lessios
Bob Stallard
Mark Torchin
Ben Turner
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute



Dr. Chappell works on the subsystems for a prototype of a remote observatory to monitor local terrestrial ecosystems.
Dr. Chappell works on the subsystems for a prototype of a remote observatory to monitor local terrestrial ecosystems.

The Development of a Remote Environmental Monitoring Observatory (REMO)
Understanding the role of vegetation (such as forests and grasslands) in the Earth’s climate system is a top priority of both the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the National Research Council’s Decadal Review for Earth Science and Applications from Space. Accurate assessments of vegetation parameters, and how they respond to human activity and natural disturbance, are critical in the modeling of global climate dynamics.

Our objective in this proposal is to design and build an autonomous tower-based observatory that will monitor the local terrestrial ecosystems. Image and spectral data will be acquired on an hourly basis from selected spatial regions surrounding the tower. This acquired data will be used to study the short- and long-term changes in the vegetation canopy at the local plot level. In addition, these measurements will greatly improve the ability to scale these local field plot characterizations to large-scale remote sensing imagery coverages.

From the development and testing of this engineering model observatory, we plan to extend the deployment of these tower-based observatories to existing and extensive Smithsonian field sites, such as SIGEO, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) through external funding opportunities. This project builds on and enhances existing Smithsonian activities by drawing together expertise across several units. The researchers at the ecological study sites (SIGEO, STRI, SERC) will provide the science drivers, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory will provide the expertise in scientific instrumentation design, build, and testing.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Jon Chappell (Principal Investigator)

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Andrew Johnston

National Air and Space Museum
Patrick Megonigal

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa
Joseph Wright
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe


Next Generation Sequencing: Enabling Transformative Technology for Biodiversity Research and Collections
The ability to sequence DNA has revolutionized all areas of modern biology. It has promoted detailed exploration of the human genome, modern forensic identification, and reconstruction of the tree of life, among many other advances. New “next-generation sequencing” technologies that enable us to readily sequence entire genomes with remarkable speed and cost efficiency promise further power to reveal the patterns and processes that shape the world around us.  This project will bring to Smithsonian research the power of these new techniques—which will help us answer longstanding questions about biodiversity, such as understanding the causes and effects of evolution and the interdependencies in ecosystems. The project will also explore how to effectively preserve genomes through frozen storage, both for use in current research and as a library for future generations. The initial phase will include symposia and workshops on next-generation sequencing technology to foster collaboration among our scientific units.  We will define optimal strategies for Smithsonian investment in this technology, which will lead to broad use of these methods by our scientists as they seek to unlock life’s fundamental secrets.

Related Resources

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Sean Brady (Principal Investigator)
Michael Braun (Principal Investigator)
Kenneth Wurdack (Principal Investigator)
Terry Erwin
Kristofer Helgen
Nancy Knowlton
Christopher Meyer
Charles Mitter
Jon Norenburg
Thomas Orrell
Cara Santelli
Ted Schultz
Ellen Strong
Jun Wen

National Museum of Natural History
Robert Fleischer (Principal Investigator)
Alfonso Alonso
Mary Hagedorn
Jesús E. Maldonado

National Zoological Park
Owen McMillan (Principal Investigator)
Rachel Collin
Harilaos Lessios
David Roubik
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Melissa McCormick

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center


Ocean Acidification in the Caribbean - Past, Present, and Future
The ongoing rapid decrease in seawater pH (ocean acidification) is of major concern because it drastically affects the carbonate minerals used to construct hard skeletons of most marine invertebrates. This could result in the large-scale degradation or possible elimination of coral reef ecosystems from shallow oceans. Accurate predictions of the viability of coral reef ecosystems under future atmospheric pCO2 conditions require knowledge of how corals respond to changes in carbonate ion concentration combined with information on spatial and temporal variation in river-influenced coastal seawater carbonate systems representative of where many reefs occur. 

This project will document variation in seawater chemistry experienced by reefs today and in the past.  Monitoring on hourly, daily, weekly, and yearly scales will be done across environmental gradients for three Smithsonian sites in the Caribbean.  Documentation of past variation is a three-step process. The isotopic composition of boron in coral skeletons has been shown to reflect the pH at which the corals grew.  We will calibrate Caribbean corals under controlled laboratory conditions, ground-truth with field-collected samples, and apply it to fossil and museum samples of the same species to obtain a record of past pH at these sites.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Rachel Collin (Principal Investigator)
Bob Stallard

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Ian MacIntyre
Valerie Paul
National Museum of Natural History


Tropical Vertebrate Diversity Loss and The Emergence of Tick-borne Diseases
Forest wildlife harbor numerous infectious diseases that are transmitted by parasites such as ticks and fleas. Some of these diseases represent a serious health risk to people. They are emerging out of wildlife populations especially in areas of high biodiversity that are disturbed by people.

This project investigates how the emergence of infectious diseases is related to the loss of animal diversity. Worldwide, poaching and habitat fragmentation drive particular animals to local extinction and reduce biodiversity, and this loss could favor the ticks and diseases that happen to do well on the small animal species that typically remain. Researchers with a wide variety of expertise will collaborate to understand the relationship between infectious diseases and animal diversity. They will work in Panama and Virginia to build “interaction networks” that describe which tick species are found on which animal species, and which diseases are found in which tick species.

The second step is to compare forests with different degrees of animal diversity loss. Here, the scientists will study how the interaction networks “degrade” as species are eliminated, whether this favors particular tick species. Ultimately, the study should tell which infectious diseases are favored by biodiversity loss.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Patrick Jansen (Principal Investigator)
Elisabeth Kalko (Principal Investigator)
Allen Herre (Principal Investigator)
Margaret Crofoot
Roberto Ibáñez
Roland Kays
Matthew Miller
Rachel Page

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
William McShea National Zoological Park