Environmental Studies Capstone winners skillfully cover food security, urban waste design, fishery certification and plant-microbe partnerships.

Last week’s Capstone Symposium presenters did not disappoint. With an array of oral and poster presentations showcasing work with business, campus, nonprofit and government partners on topics ranging from global conservation to implementing sustainable practices in corporations, choosing winners was tough.

Riley Smith, Shruti Parikh, Sydney Barnes-Grant and Lola Behrens with Capstone Instructor Sean Mc Donald.
Riley Smith, Shruti Parikh, Sydney Barnes-Grant and Lola Behrens with Capstone Instructor Sean Mc Donald.

The results are in though (thanks to faculty and alumni judges), and the winning presenters have bragging rights for life. Congratulations to Riley, Shruti, Sydney and Lola!

The Environmental Studies Capstone highlights students work resulting from a three quarter long course series that encompasses an internship with partner organizations at UW and across Seattle.

Here’s a look at the four winning Capstone projects.

Lola Behrens

Project Title: Cultivating Food Security
Best Poster Presentation

Lola’s Capstone internship with Good Cheers Food Bank & Thrift Stores focused on learning how to mitigate food insecurity. Good Cheers is located on South Whidbey Island and is committed to providing healthy locally sourced food to residents in need. The organization provides resources to sustain healthy eating habits and contribute towards the long-term health outcomes of its community.

Through her research Lola learned that in 2016, 12.3% of households in the United States were food insecure, (these households were unable to obtain enough food to adequately feed every member of the family). She observed and interviewed food bank users, and supplemented her research with a review of relevant literature:

“I found that three important factors (pillars of Good Cheers) in mitigating food insecurity include: the adoption of health-oriented point systems by food banks, the advocacy and facilitation of food sovereignty, and a deliberate effort to develop a sense of community within local food systems.” 

Lola Behren's Capstone poster.
Lola Behren’s Capstone poster.


Sydney Barnes-Grant

Project Title: Optimization of urban waste design
Best Oral Presentation

Sydney worked with the U.S. EPA, Region 10 to address the issue of aquatic trash. During her research, Sydney found that most people take less than two seconds to determine where they dispose of their trash and that land sources are responsible for 80 percent of trash in oceans.

A snapshot of Sydney's Capstone work.
A snapshot of Sydney’s Capstone work.

As part of her internship for the EPA’s Trash Free Waters program, Sydney wanted to build a public waste management tool to deal with land-based trash. She created a protocol based on California’s Urban Rapid Trash Assessment methodology to locate and track urban litter hotspots. Using ArcGIS technology, Sydney mapped litter hotspots in three water adjacent neighborhoods in Seattle, WA.

This type of monitoring can be used to inform city planning to optimize waste receptacle locations, using smarter design and strategic placement near litter hotspots. Sydney will continue her good work with the EPA in ongoing efforts to keep trash out of our waterways.


Riley Smith

Project Title: Greener than thou: Impacts of environmental and social sustainability certification on the Alaska fishery
Honorable Mention Poster Presentation

Riley worked with the Pacific Seafood Processor’s Association to examine the impacts of environmental and social sustainability certification on Alaska fisheries. He researched the effectiveness of eco-labels as marketing tools to ensure equitably grown food, and identified side effects that certifications can have.

Riley found that in fisheries, the leading eco-label is that of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which focuses on fisheries management and environmental sustainability, yet excludes human rights and labor standards for certification. This revealed to him a gap that needed addressing.

“The issues of human rights and sustainability in fisheries is what catalyzed my Capstone research!” stated Riley, who measured the adherence of the Alaska Salmon and Pollock fisheries to the environmental, human rights and labor standards of the Responsible Fishing Scheme. His research and review of governing regulations found third-party certification is often biased towards industrialized, large-scale fisheries and places the burden of cost for certification on the producers.

Riley graduates this quarter and will work as a contract researcher on a grant with the Alaskan Fisheries Development Foundation and NOAA on the topic of socially responsible practices on vessels.

Riley Smith's Capstone poster.
Riley Smith’s Capstone poster.


Shruti Parikh

Project Title: Using plant-microbe partnerships to help salt-impacted crops
Honorable Mention, Oral Presentation

Shruti knows a lot about endophytes (beneficial bacteria that live in plants) and has been working in Sharon Doty’s UW Lab for two years to test the potential of the microbes to reduce plant stress caused by high salinity.

A snapshot of Shruti's Capstone work.
A snapshot of Shruti’s Capstone work.

High salinity is a type of abiotic stress that effects crop productivity and quality. Through her research, Shruti found that in 2010, about half of the world’s cropland was facing salinity stress. There are very few plants that can tolerate high levels of salt however, the Doty Lab looks at endophytes that live within plants as potential allies to help plants tolerate these stressors in a more natural way.

The goal of Shruti’s study was to isolate and test endophytes to determine whether they colonize other plants and help the plants cope with high salinity conditions. She tested the initial stress tolerance of various crop plants, and performed plant studies to demonstrate whether the endophytes improve plant growth. The results showed visible signs of higher stress tolerance in poplar plants inoculated with a certain endophyte, SSP8. Big picture potential: by improving plant growth, these bacteria will help promote sustainable agricultural practices and bioenergy production.

Shruti received a Mary Gates Scholarship earlier this year for her research on using plants to purify air and reduce pollutants such as arsenic. Her research interests continue to expand!