Hands On: The Funding Behind a Unique Campus Collaboration to Explore River Health

On its trek from the Sierra Nevadas toward the San Francisco Bay, the American River carves its way through the state capitol of Sacramento, including a pass right by California State University, Sacramento. 

So it makes a certain amount of sense to pool talents of government and university scientists with a diverse student body to study the river’s health and how human activities impact it. 

That kind of coordination is easier said than done. But a combination of federal research grants, private philanthropy, and university leadership made it happen, starting in 2015, and it’s now expanding its scope with some additional grant money

The project includes a large component of undergrad and faculty research at Sac State, called Sustainable Interdisciplinary Research to Inspire Undergraduate Success (SIRIUS). That program integrated hands-on study of the American River across multiple courses, offering rare research opportunities to city-dwelling undergrads, while tackling negative human impacts on the health of the river. 

SIRIUS was funded with more than $1 million in initial commitments—$600,000 from the NSF, $300,000 from the Keck Foundation, and some additional campus grants—and Keck recently awarded another $250,000 to expand the program to six more classes. Now, students in courses like hydrogeology, environmental toxicology and physical geology will participate in the interdisciplinary studies.

The project didn’t appear out of thin air. For three years, Thomas Landerholm, vice chair of Sac State’s Biological Sciences Department, and Biology Professor Kelly McDonald worked on the concept and wrangled the funding from various sources. 

The result is something unique that ties together a few causes and missed opportunities. 

For one, there’s the environmental importance of studying the American River, which has sections listed as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act. SIRIUS research will look at the connection between the river and groundwater, trace contaminants’ paths into aquifers, and analyze the health risks of exposure to toxic substances, among other goals. The campus-wide elements, which span multiple courses and require coordination with government agencies, also provide a unique interdisciplinary element that doesn’t always naturally occur. 

The fact that SIRIUS is engaging with undergrads is another huge benefit that was a draw for both the NSF and the Keck Foundation. The NSF grant comes from its Division of Undergraduate Education, and is largely motivated by a goal to improve the diversity of people entering STEM fields. The experience of engaging in the profound issue of river ecology and water quality right outside of the campus is a unique opportunity that may compel students to pursue future work in science. 

Keck’s funding comes from a similar interest in undergraduate education. Probably best known as a funder of high-risk research projects, Keck’s education program also promotes research experiences in undergraduate colleges with the idea that students are better prepared to enter the workforce. In particular, Keck funding is allowing the school to purchase advanced equipment needed to conduct the research. 

The replicability of the program also appeals to funders. Once it’s implemented and evaluated, those involved hope to duplicate it elsewhere. Those involved are already in talks about potential opportunities with community colleges in the region.