Professor Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Award

Five-year grant funds innovative research and education project

Pankaj Lal, assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, was recently awarded a five-year, $450,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation to explore sustainable bioenergy solutions in the Midwestern and Southern United States. The highly competitive award supports the research and education initiatives of faculty like Lal who are in the early stages of their careers.

Titled “Exploring Place-Based Opportunities for Bioenergy Sustainability,” Lal’s CAREER project will focus on place-based policy solutions that develop forest- and agriculture-based bioenergy as a fossil fuel alternative. His solutions will be based on analysis of factors such as location suitability, socioeconomic uncertainty and environmental impact. Its strong educational component will also help strengthen the pipeline of young talent in STEM disciplines through research and student mentorship opportunities, as well as the development of new courses.

“I’m honored and excited to receive this prestigious award, which acknowledges that we are doing something special here at Montclair State in the study of the sustainability of renewable energy resources in general and bioenergy in particular,” says Lal.

The CAREER grant is one of the National Science Foundation’s most respected awards. “Dr. Lal indeed represents the best of The Academy in his outstanding research and dedication and prowess as a teacher,” says Robert Prezant, Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. “This award in turn reflects the success of our College in helping to ensure our students have excellent teachers and research scholars who are also strong mentors.”

Fostering Energy Independence
By studying the factors that impact the development and sustainable production of forest-and crop-based bioenergy markets in the United States, Lal’s CAREER project will contribute to the nation’s energy independence.  

“The results of this project will interest policymakers, researchers, farmers and feedstock cultivators, industries and concerned citizens,” explains Lal. “Its methodologies are adaptable and will contribute towards developing longer-term strategies that will benefit the agricultural sector and support rural economies and communities in this country and beyond.”

Focusing on Students
Montclair State students will be involved in the project. “It will be carried out in large part through undergraduate and graduate level research projects, which will give student researchers the skills they need to thrive in trans-disciplinary STEM careers,” notes Lal. Student research results will be integrated into K-12 public outreach and environmental education programs.

“Sharing my students’ success will be the greatest reward. I am extremely lucky to work with a dynamic group of students and am very proud that their work contributed to getting this award,” says Lal. “Developing sustainable energy and resources is one of the grand challenges facing modern society, and I feel satisfied that our work can contribute a bit towards an improved understanding of this area.”

Lal joins past Montclair State University faculty recipients of the CAREER award Stefanie Brachfeld, Earth and Environmental Studies chair and director of the doctoral program in Environmental Management; Biology chair Quinn Vega; and Educational Foundations professor Jamaal Matthews.

Taking an integrative, interdisciplinary approach, Lal has explored the interconnections between human society and the environment in ongoing research initiatives. Working in the United States, Africa and South Asia, his team efforts have focused on the human dimensions of ecosystem management, natural resource conservation and policy, and climate change.

This is not Lal’s first award for work on bioenergy sustainability. He has received nearly $6.8 million in grants and contracts for research as a Principal Investigator or Co-Principal Investigator from sources such as the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m looking forward to a great opportunity to work with and train the next generation of researchers in the area of sustainability and cleaner sources of energy,” says Lal. “The real world value of this research makes this a worthwhile effort.”