Mitchell Center Stories
Want to learn more about Mitchell Center projects and people? We regularly publish stories about the work of Mitchell Center members and research teams.
From its inception, the Mitchell Center’s work with community partners has emphasized issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2020, the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future (GOPIF) asked the Center to develop a road map for strengthening the equity outcomes of Maine’s Climate Action Plan.
More recently, the Mitchell Center was asked to assume a larger role in the next State Climate Action Plan through the Equity Engagement Project. This effort will ensure that the populations in Maine most impacted by climate change are aware of, and have the opportunity to influence, the State’s climate programs and policies. The project will engage with tribal communities, people of color, immigrant communities, older adults, youth, people without reliable access to transportation, recipients of energy assistance benefits and other low-income and disadvantaged groups.
On November 20, 2023, University of Maine graduate student Courtney Baker gave a presentation on the development of a new food waste management tool.
According to Baker, food is the largest part of the solid waste stream in Maine. Most of the food that doesn’t get eaten ends up in landfills across the state, which presents a number of problems including wasting money and resources, harming the environment, and preventing good food from getting to those who might need it.
In response, Food Rescue MAINE, a Mitchell Center program, is working to launch the Maine Circular Food System Geological Information Systems (GIS) Map and Resource Locator.
On September 11, 2023, Vanessa Levesque gave a talk at the Mitchell Center as part of the Sustainability Talks series. “Vacationland or Climate Migrationland?” provided information about climate change as a potential driver of migration and what that might mean for Maine communities.
“People have been moving away from the places they love (or don’t) to new homes with hopes for a fresh start for as long as we’ve been on Earth,” said Levesque. “Further, these past migrations have often disadvantaged Indigenous, Black, and low-income people.”
Last month, the Northeast Safe & Thriving For All (NEST) project team released their final report to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Climate Program Office presenting their findings on climate migration. The NEST project is composed of researchers, experts and practitioners in the Upper Northeast with an interest in the potential for and effects of climate migration specific to these regions. The Upper Northeast is defined by NEST as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, western Massachusetts, and upstate New York, which are areas perceived as “climate havens”.
From alpine summits to blueberry barrens, freshwater wetlands to estuaries, and everywhere in-between, Maine offers a brilliantly diverse natural landscape to be explored.
“Our Maine”, a newly released book edited by Mitchell Center faculty fellows Aram Calhoun and Malcolm Hunter in collaboration with Kent Redford, gives readers an opportunity to explore the natural heritage of the state and learn about the many species and ecosystems found within it. The book includes stories, and other information from experts and academics, members of the Wabanaki, conservation groups, and state agency staff. Additionally, “Our Maine” features beautiful photographs of Maine’s natural landscapes and some of the signature species associated with them.
On September 1, 2023, three new research projects launched under the Maine Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI) 104b (state-level) program. The WRRI 104b program, funded through the U.S. Geological Survey, provides annual grants for faculty members of 4-year educational institutions in Maine in collaboration with partner organizations. These grants are designed to support projects centered around finding sustainable solutions to better manage Maine’s water resources. The Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions leads the Maine WRRI program and handles funding for all projects. This year, three faculty members from the University of Maine were awarded research grants based on a competitive, peer-review process. Their projects are focused on innovative strategies for irrigation in agricultural settings, monitoring of mountain ponds to evaluate potential effects of climate change on water quality, and effectiveness of biochar on blueberry growth and maintenance.
In recent years, Maine has seen great interest in renewable energy infrastructure. With the state’s renewable portfolio standard set at 80% by 2030, installation of solar panels and wind turbines have been on the rise. However, it’s often up to other organizations to assist underserved communities to develop sustainable energy systems at the local level.
Sharon Klein was recently awarded a four-year, $1.125 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to study how statewide local energy action networks (LEANs) can support community-initiated, community-engaged, and community-owned renewable energy and energy efficiency in underserved communities, with a strong focus on Wabanaki tribes and rural lower income communities within Maine’s borders.
Look to your right or left on the interstate in Maine, and you’re almost as likely to spot a charging station or field of solar panels as you are a toll plaza. Maine’s rush to promote sustainable energy is generally considered positive and necessary, but, like a Tesla racing up I-95, it risks leaving some smaller communities behind.
Dr. Sharon Klein is interested in energy justice, or making sustainable energy more accessible to underrepresented groups. She believes that community energy, or collaborative efforts among neighbors to address energy issues, could be the key to making sustainable energy available to all communities. Specifically, she is studying how workshops to provide residents with energy-saving window inserts can kickstart community energy initiatives.
“Part of what needs to happen in each of these different communities is to start that conversation about what the energy goals are for different community members, for the local government, and everybody that’s involved,” she said. “A community workshop to build window inserts can be a catalyzing event that starts that process.”
The thrift store in your local church’s basement might be doing more for the community than saving families from spending $40 for jeans. Not only can systems of reuse, like thrift stores, reduce waste, they strengthen bonds between neighbors and make communities more resilient to hardship.
“Anytime we see any sort of big economic or cultural shock, a lot of times traditional supply chains are broken,” Dr. Cindy Isenhour said. “But when you have more localized and resilient systems for procurement, they can help you weather those storms.”
Isenhour studies the way that people think about and deal with material waste. With funding from the Mitchell Center, she and Jared Wildwistle, a UMaine Masters graduate, have been studying the feasibility of a different kind of reuse system in Maine: reusable take-out packaging.
Gabby Hillyer has been a member of the University of Maine community going on seven years, and for approximately five of those years she has been telling and re-telling a story about a stolen bucket. Hillyer is a Ph.D. student in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences program at UMaine. She also participates in the National Research Traineeship Program in Conservation Science and serves as the project coordinator for the Maine Shellfish Learning Network (MSLN), a novel partnership that connects harvesters and others from up and down Maine’s coast to better address the multifaceted issues facing their shellfisheries. Both the MSLN and her graduate research on the coast of Maine emerged from her involvement with an organized effort to strengthen coastal economies at the Mitchell Center. Hillyer has a robust list of accomplishments on her resume, but the bucket drifters always seem to float to the top.
Katie Tims, Class of 2021, and Dominique DiSpirito, Class of 2022, are recent University of Maine graduates who found promising footholds in the fields of sustainability and materials management in Maine, in part because of their undergraduate research experiences. As interns, both students worked on the Mitchell Center’s Food Waste Management project. The project grew from work started in 2019 by the interdisciplinary Materials Management team to find solutions to Maine’s solid waste problems. In research done by the team, food waste was ranked by stakeholders as a major area of concern. The food waste team collaborates with partners to research and pilot solutions to reduce food waste, keep organics out of landfills, and address food insecurity in Maine.
In a talk on November 28, Roger Milliken discussed the conflict between western culture and the sustainability of life on Earth from his unique ethical perspective as a Maine forest manager and environmentalist. Milliken has always had a vested interest in Maine’s forests, partly because its past, present, and future is intertwined with the story of his own heritage. One of Milliken’s core arguments is that the destruction of the natural world and degradation of humans’ quality of life is a result of a western culture rooted in “individualism, separation, and dominion.” Milliken did not pull this claim out of thin air or tabloids, but from his own family’s history.
Conjure an image of the prototypical intern: you might imagine a bored 19-year-old fetching coffee and making photocopies, or you might imagine that student struggling to do the work of a full-time professional for free. In these scenarios, interns are either tossed in head-first or beached. Last summer, however, students in the Mitchell Center’s pilot internship program were taught to swim. They were challenged to work with faculty, stakeholders, and each other to tackle real issues facing communities in their backyard, all with the necessary funding, research training and mentorship to promote their success.
Maine’s coast is dotted with over 2,000 shell heaps, sites where Wabanaki ancestors would gather to harvest and eat shellfish, producing deposits of shells ranging in size from small piles to 30-foot-deep mounds. These collections of exceptionally well-preserved materials can help scientists reconstruct a record of past lifeways and environments. For hundreds of years, scientists and industries have extracted a wealth of materials and history from some shell heaps without consultation or collaboration with those whose ancestors created them. As sea level rise accelerates, these losses are compounded by increasing erosion. Dr. Bonnie Newsom is one of the scholars urgently seeking to reconnect Wabanaki people to shell heaps before they disappear forever.
Survey the picturesque Damariscotta River and, among the many moorings and oyster farms, you might spot youthful figures hunched over the mudflat, waders on, clam rakes in hand. These are not shellfish harvesters, but local students gathering data to support the sustainable management of an ecosystem and industry.
This summer, Sarah Risley, a UMaine graduate student based at the Darling Marine Center, is leading a team of university and high school students to study the shellfish populations of the upper Damariscotta estuary. They are also recording the local knowledge of harvesters who know the ecosystem the best.
If all the researchers in a given discipline compiled their peer-reviewed research, what would it amount to? Would it better address the world’s greatest problems, or would it falter?
This is the query Dr. Linda Silka raised this past June, as she stood in front of several hundred members of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) at their summer conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Silka, a Senior Fellow with the Mitchell Center, serves as the President of SPSSI, an organization of 3000+ social and behavioral scientists focused on engaging with the world’s critical social and policy issues from a psychological perspective.
Shellfishing is deeply embedded in the foodways, cultures and traditions of communities all along the coast. This livelihood also contributes significant value to the marine economies and sustenance fishing cultures of coastal areas. Although shellfishing is crucial for many coastal communities, it faces some daunting challenges including water quality problems, increasing pressure from predators like green crabs, shoreline access, and more. How can a new collaborative website help to sustain it?
How can we move beyond the notion that there are “others” among “us” and “find a common place that we can all call home”? This is one of the questions that Judy East will explore in her keynote address at the 2022 Maine Sustainability & Water Conference on Thursday, March 31.
PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment, are at the center of a growing environmental and public health crisis in Maine, with devastating effects that are being felt across the state. These chemicals have been linked to health problems and have now been detected in well water, farm soils, farm products including milk, wildlife, and people’s bodies in Maine. The Maine Dept. of Environmental Protection reached out to Laura Rickard for help training agency staff in communicating about PFAS risks as part of their overall response to this crisis.
Jessica Jansujwicz has charted a path from ecology to sustainability science that eventually led her to the Mitchell Center and a career focused on community-engaged research, teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and a leadership role with Maine Sea Grant.
As part of the ongoing work of Food Rescue MAINE, a team of undergraduate students is working this fall to engage and educate people to help reduce food waste. Along the way they are learning and developing skills, stepping into leadership roles, and connecting with professional networks. And their work provides real benefits for Maine communities.
A research team led by Adam Daigneault explored the benefits and costs of scaling up conservation in the Sebago Lake watershed to protect a pristine drinking water source and provide other ecosystem services.
From ocean acidification to climate adaptation, Parker Gassett works with Maine communities to build resilience in the face of change.
In response to concerns raised by many different stakeholders, an interdisciplinary team of researchers is gathering and documenting knowledge of where PFAS are in Maine and how they move through soil, water, wildlife and food.
A team of eight undergraduate students, led by Mitchell Center Faculty Fellow Susanne Lee, are working together to pilot solutions that can reduce both food waste and food insecurity in Maine.
Sharon Klein‘s research and teaching center on the technical, economic, environmental, and social tradeoffs inherent in sustainable energy decision-making, including solar and other forms of renewable energy. Her current focus is on “community solar,” and how people, organizations, and communities can weigh their options and find the solutions that work best.
We’re making progress in moving toward a more circular food system, which has many economic, environmental, and social benefits. Recent research looks at potential risks in food waste recovery so it can be done safely and sustainably.
Mitchell Center Sustainability Awards have been presented annually since 2013. The awards are designed to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of researchers, students, and external partners who have helped advance the values and principles at the heart of the Mitchell Center’s stakeholder-engaged, solutions-focused, interdisciplinary projects and partnerships.
Mitchell Center Senior Fellow Linda Silka and colleagues from UMaine Machias worked with graduate students and faculty on incorporating Community-Based Learning (CBL) in their courses and curricula.
UMaine graduate students often undertake research, whether their field is economics, ecology or anthropology. Rather than just participating in research, however, a team of graduate students is leading an innovative new climate-planning project, funded by a Mitchell Center seed grant.
Papermaking has been important not just for the economy of the Katahdin region in northern Maine, but for its social and cultural identity. The industry’s decline has been devastating. Adam Daigneault led a collaborative project to help the region assess its resilience and chart a path forward.
UMaine graduate student Matthew Mensinger has studied the hazards American eels face from hydroelectric dams and in search of solutions that help eels survive while preserving power generation.
Shellfishing is important to the economies, cultures and traditions of communities all along the Maine coast. At Shellfish Focus Day, part of the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum, shellfish harvesters, scientists, municipal leaders, educators, and representatives from state agencies come together to connect and learn how to help shellfishing communities thrive. Bridie McGreavy, Gabrielle Hillyer, and colleagues share their research and education efforts as part of the Mitchell Center’s Strengthening Coastal Economies project.
Atlantic salmon are in trouble. Can effective collaboration help restore this iconic species? UMaine graduate student Melissa Flye researches how people and agencies work together and communicate in salmon restoration efforts.
While softshell clams remain a priority focus due to their economic, ecological, and cultural value, in 2019 the Strengthening Coastal Economies project broadened its focus to include sea scallops, mussels, and oysters, all of which are high-value fisheries in Maine.
On November 18, 2019, the Maine Food Production Leadership Council held its first work session, led by faculty and students involved in the Mitchell Center project, Food Waste Management: Empowering Maine Businesses Toward Sustainability. Since that meeting, the students involved with the project have researched potential solutions for reducing food waste and food insecurity in Maine. Their next step is to present these potential solutions to the Council and garner feedback on how they might work in Maine.