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Four San Diego State University research teams will focus on transborder research and development, leveraging SDSU Imperial Valley’s presence in Calexico and Brawley, two hours east of San Diego. Four San Diego State University research teams will focus on transborder research and development, leveraging SDSU Imperial Valley’s presence in Calexico and Brawley, two hours east of San Diego.

Big Ideas for Transborder Solutions

Four ideas aim to address rural infrastructure, Imperial County health and environmental issues, transboundary water, and advancing 3D printing.
By Padma Nagappan

Last of four articles in a series on Big Ideas.

Environmental, social, and economic challenges transcend national borders and affect all communities sharing the same resources. From the Pacific coast to the Imperial Valley, our communities reflect a rich hybrid culture, but have glaring disparities in access to clean water, economic opportunity, and modern infrastructure. 
Four San Diego State University research teams will focus on transborder research and development, leveraging SDSU Imperial Valley’s presence in Calexico and Brawley, two hours east of San Diego. 

Transborder Solutions is one key category of the Big Ideas initiative, aimed at developing innovative solutions to real world problems. The other categories include Health and Well-beingClimate Change and Social Justice. The ideas have been proposed by teams of cross-disciplinary researchers across campus who will work in tandem with students and the community. 

The Big Ideas initiative seeks to combine, leverage and promote SDSU’s strengths for the betterment of the world. The initiative was launched by President Adela de la Torre in fall 2019, and 17 teams have advanced to the next stage, following a year of ideation and discussion.

Here is a look at the proposals, which will be part of a video showcase series — Short Films for Big Ideas — followed by a webinar and moderated discussion scheduled for 4-5 p.m. Thursday, Mar. 25, via Zoom.

Reimagining Transboundary Water

Water in the California-Mexico transboundary region is more valuable and stressed than ever before. 

Given recent conflicts and tensions over the quantity and quality of water, there is an urgent need for convergent thinking that brings together technical, scientific and socioeconomic expertise to address needs and questions related to water in the border regions of San Diego-Tijuana and Imperial Valley-Mexicali.

“Millions of gallons of sewage, and tens of thousands of sediments and trash reach our coast from watersheds originating on both sides of the border,” said Trent Biggs, geography professor. “This has human health impacts, with beachgoers contracting waterborne illnesses. And in the Imperial Valley, lack of clean drinking water for migrant farm workers is an environmental justice emergency.”

A team of civil, construction and environmental engineers, geographers and economists at SDSU aim to build a transboundary community that will focus on solving critical water problems through sensor technology for real-time water quality assessments and advanced water treatment technologies; modeling flood risks and microbial risks; and assessing the impact of climate change and water policy on water availability for agricultural and urban uses.

“Reimagining transboundary water means working with experts here and in Mexico to really understand the magnitude of the water challenges we’re facing,” said Natalie Mladenov, environmental engineering professor and director of the Water Innovation and Reuse Lab. “Once we do this, we can work on win-win solutions for the challenges here and south of the border.”

Rural Resilient Infrastructure 

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. infrastructure systems a grade of D+. Age and poor conditions have been made worse by a changing climate and extreme weather. 

There is an urgent need to update infrastructure systems for rural communities, which are being severely impacted by climate change. This is the goal of Rural Resilient Infrastructure (Rural RISE), focused on establishing SDSU as a leading resource in the Imperial Valley cities of Brawley and Calexico, and eventually, nationally.

“Our big idea is to enhance the quality of life in rural America,” said Marta Miletic, civil engineering professor and geotech researcher. “We will focus on critical systems such as food and agriculture, energy, telecommunications, transportation, water and wastewater. 

A team of engineers, historians and geographers will focus on developing effective methods to strengthen the resilience of rural America, utilizing community meetings and forums to procure input on local needs and feedback on the developed models and procedures.

The team will also introduce interdisciplinary courses to provide a background for college students and working professionals interested in this 21st-century challenge, while developing video training for high school students to promote the next generation of engineers in underrepresented rural communities.

Transfacturing: Transforming Manufacturing with 3-D Printing

3-D printing technology is the key to transforming manufacturing technology. But the costs of 3-D printing devices, the speed of current methods, and integrating smart materials with processes continue to be challenges. 

Engineers and scientists at SDSU envision ways to enable fast and cost-efficient manufacturing solutions while leveraging transdisciplinary strengths to cultivate sustainability. The team proposes to integrate SDSU strengths in 3D printing, smart materials, machine learning, internet of things, cybersecurity and other emerging areas to advance the technology.

“Our team is looking into the needs of the workforce and the environment, while keeping pace with productivity and introducing new technologies,” said Joaquin Camacho, mechanical engineering professor. “Our big idea is to transform manufacturing for the next big industrial revolution.”

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the limitations of traditional manufacturing technology and business models, with essential supplies going out of stock as factories around the world came to a halt and international shipping was restricted during the early months of the pandemic. 3D printing will enable more robust responses to future crises based on a new decentralized manufacturing model where individuals are empowered to fabricate crucial goods and become independent economic agents. 

As a sustainable, eco-friendly model, it will also help reduce the environmental impact of traditional manufacturing.

SDSU RISE Center (Research, Innovation, Student Engagement)

The demographics  of the rural,  border community of Imperial Valley  present a complex set of socioeconomic issues that need to be addressed so residents have better access to health care, community support and advancement opportunities.
Through a new center called RISE (Research, Innovation, Student Engagement), SDSU Imperial Valley leaders, faculty, and students and SDSU faculty in San Diego plan to harness community partnerships and initiate community engagement to address  issues unique to the region. They aim to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in research and problem-solving activities so SDSU may become the premier border-region Hispanic-Serving Institution for research in the United States.

“Imperial County is the picture of promise,” said Michael Gates, associate director and professor of nursing. “It has wide, breathtaking open spaces with lush agricultural fields and a thriving sustainable energy industry. But it also suffers from chronic high unemployment, 30% of children live in poverty and health disparities have become even more pronounced during the pandemic.”

RISE will focus on issues facing Imperial County residents and organizations, identifying solutions in areas such as  health, education, and the environment. 

“Local collaborative efforts have already resulted in a lot of good data collection. What is lacking is infrastructure that brings together community driven academic research partnerships,” said Beverly Carlson, nursing professor and graduate advisor. “SDSU RISE Center will provide a hub to empower the local community to resolve its challenges in a holistic and sustainable way.”