STEPS research is organized by Themes, length-scale groupings in which researchers pursue closely related research questions, promote interactions on highly associated research activities, and drive overall forward momentum.

Image illustrating scales


Theme 1 (Materials Scale) generates new fundamental knowledge about phosphorus capture at atomic and molecular scales using discovery-driven approaches (i.e., biological inspiration, chemical analytics). Integrated with Materials Informatics (MI), Theme 1 accelerates the development of novel capabilities to promote the facile transformation of organic and inorganic phosphorus and enable the efficient capture and recovery of phosphate.

Theme 2 (Human-Technology Scale) implements materials and technologies from Theme 1 in both aqueous suspensions (e.g., surface water and wastewater) and the plant-soil-microbial system by using laboratory, greenhouse, and field-scale techniques. Theme 2 applies state-of-the-art scientific approaches including nanoscale spectroscopic characterization of phosphate speciation in soils, novel sensor development to improve tracking of phosphorus in soils, genome-wide approaches for selecting and engineering crop systems with enhanced phosphorus utilization, and development of next-generation, plant-responsive fertilizers.

Theme 3 (Regional and Global Scale) identifies intervention portfolios (e.g., innovative technologies, best management practices) that enable the realization of the 25-in-25 vision and are resilient to socio-economic, policy, and environmental change, using integrated modeling at global, regional, and local scales and social network analysis. Theme 2 data about the flow and management of phosphorus as a function of space and time (e.g., through urban, aquatic, and agricultural systems) guide research prioritization in Themes 1 and 2.

A Convergence Informatics (CI) research initiative provides data-science-driven guidance for the design of novel and effective materials, technologies, and strategies for phosphorus capture, decomposition, and modification to realize the opportunities presented by Theme integration. CI builds upon an MI-based approach in which process-structure-properties-performance relations are designed by analyzing large materials data sets with machine learning algorithms.

The STEPS convergence research strategy, drawing from the fields of Science of Team Science as well as Integration and Implementation Science, utilizes evidence-based approaches to assimilate emerging knowledge and co-refine research questions through strategically designed interactions and processes. Convergence research strategies create efficiencies at integrating research across 17 orders of magnitude in length scale. Convergence boundary objects (data, phosphorus flow diagrams, and language mapping) serve as tangible and conceptual anchors, linking specific research contributions across STEPS disciplines and length scales and allowing the researchers to contextualize individual contributions to a highly complex problem. Specific geographical sites or Triple-Bottom-Line Scenarios that represent urban, agricultural, and aquatic systems provide technological constraints, potential impact scenarios, and connection to unique types of stakeholders in phosphorus sustainability.