Pener Conference focuses on a healthier planet

Pener Conference focuses on a healthier planet

The climate change crisis is all too real, and reports of increasing global temperatures, rising sea levels, more intense wildfires, ocean acidification, droughts, and melting glaciers paint a bleak picture for the future of the planet. 

But addressing the second annual James Tufts Pener Environmental Stewardship Conference as its keynote speaker, Dr. Lucy Hutyra provided some good news: trees in urban areas of the Northeast are outperforming their rural counterparts when it comes to removing carbon from the atmosphere. 

“Trees in Boston grow four times faster than any textbook would have predicted,” Hutyra, a distinguished professor in the Department of Earth & Environment at Boston University, told conference participants May 3 in the CFA’s Hale Theater. The 2023 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship — more familiarly known as a “genius grant” —  for her work investigating the impacts of urbanization on environmental carbon cycle dynamics, Hutyra is currently on sabbatical from BU and serving as a visiting faculty researcher at Google. 

Hutyra has spent roughly a decade trying to understand why “fragmented forests” — in other words, trees within a short walking distance of a natural or man-made edge — grow faster and therefore sequester more carbon than trees in a continuous forest. One factor, she said, is less competition with neighboring trees for sunlight and nutrients. 

But her larger point was that truly understanding these differences in environmental carbon cycle dynamics is crucial to accurately measuring the effectiveness of carbon emission reduction plans at local, state, national, and global levels. The environmental ecologist has worked on and is currently working on decision-support tools to help stakeholders make the best choice for their respective locations. For instance, she said, increasing the tree canopy might make sense in Boston but not in Phoenix or Los Angeles, where trees compete with humans for scarce water resources. And planting more trees in Boston might be less effective than adequately funding the care and preservation of existing city trees that also die at a higher rate than their rural counterparts. In the most dense areas of Boston, where flat black roofs predominate, painting those roofs white may be a more cost-effective way to reduce the so-called “urban heat island” effect caused by absorption of the sun’s rays. 

“I never thought I’d learn so much about roofing materials,” said Hutyra, drawing a laugh from the audience. 

Hutyra by no means offered her research as a panacea for the climate change crisis, but she does see her work as a significant step in the right direction. 

“This is actually an incredibly good story,” she said. “These fragmented forests are doing outsize work.” 

While Hutyra’s keynote address was clearly a thought-provoking highlight of the day, the professor’s remarks were simply one part of an entire day of scholarly focus on environmental sustainability. The rest of presentations were student-driven, in keeping with the mission of the conference, which was organized by Upper School science faculty Don Donovan P ‘10, ‘13 and Skip Schneider P ‘20, ‘22. In all, 13 schools were represented in the day’s various presentations and workshops. In his welcoming remarks, Mark Pener P ‘23, James’ father, noted that the conference participants’ love of the environment, their willingness to make a difference, and their optimism honored his son’s legacy. 

In his own welcoming remarks, Head of School Chris Fortunato thanked Hutyra, the student presenters, Donovan and Schneider, and conference attendees for gathering in community and in scholarship. At the end of the conference, Schneider echoed those remarks. 

“We knew today would be good,” he told the audience of students, “but you guys blew the doors off.” 

 The James Tufts Pener Environmental Stewardship Conference honors the life and legacy of James Pener ‘23. A rising Thayer senior at the time, Pener died in July of 2022 in a car accident in Maine. 

The 13 schools participating in this spring’s conference were: 
Thayer Academy
Archbishop Williams High School
Belmont Hill School
Braintree High School
Brooks School
Cohasset Center for Student Coastal Research
Middlesex School
Milton Academy
Noble and Greenough School
St. Mark’s School
The Roxbury Latin School
Tabor Academy
Weston High School

The day’s student presentations included: 

Air Pollution’s Effect on Asthma Genes by Saraellen Mathewson (Archbishop Williams High School) 

Biomimicry for Sustainable Systems Design by Jonathan Lan (Weston High School) 

Blackout Braintree: The Effects of Light Pollution and How to Combat It by Calvin O’Brien and Kelsey DePaolo (Braintree High School) 

Tech Innovations: The Future of Healthcare by Jacinta Wangari and Rhea Shah (Noble & Greenough) 

The Importance and Impact of Fisheries in the Amazon Rainforest by Steven Silvers ‘25 and Theo Dowd ‘25 (Thayer Academy) 

The Sources, Toxicity, and Longevity of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances by Elsie Vijjeswarapu (Archbishop Williams High School)

Going Green in a Greenwashed World by Eli Lukens ‘24 and Julia Fiorello ‘24 (Thayer Academy) 

Eco-Hope: The Essential Role of Emotions in Environmental Advocacy by Camryn Hartigan (Tabor Academy) 

The day’s workshops included: 

Thayer Sustainability Club Workshop led by Rebecca Rudolph ‘24 and Sadie Smith ‘24 (Thayer Academy) 

Advocating for Commuting by Bike/Bus/Train in Place of Driving led by Charlie Foley ‘25 and Brendan Brosnan ‘25 (Thayer Academy) 

Eco-Artistry: From Trash to Treasure led by Luke Driscoll ‘25, Teri Homicile ‘24, and Renee Martel ‘25 (Thayer Academy) 

Policy Work: The Key To Addressing the Climate Crisis led by Brooke McHugh ‘25 and Emily Bunn ‘25 (Thayer Academy) 

Biomimicry for Sustainable Systems Design led by Jonathan Lan (Weston High School) 

Lowering Your Fashion Footprint: Reducing, Reusing & Upcycling led by faculty Dr. Jen Craft and Deb Harrison and students Jacinta Wangari, Sasha Stern, Altan Marvi, Adam Davidson, Emilie Andrews, and Rhea Shah (Noble & Greenough) 

Measuring the Percent Coverage of Dune Grass on an Important Barrier Island Using Ground Truthing, UAVs, and Machine Learning led by Noah McDowall, Laila Al Rashid, Nick Hoadley, Brandon Chapman, Luc LeFevre, Luke Haddad, and Anna Post (Cohasset Center for Student Coastal Research) 

The Effect of Different Fertilizers on Phytoplankton Bloom led by Jimmy Zhong (Tabor Academy) 

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