Environmental Factor – October 2022: Superfund Research Program Interns Win Prestigious KC Donnelly Awards


Seven NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) interns have been awarded KC Donnelly Clerkship Award supplements. Named for long-time SRP recipient Kirby “KC” Donnelly, the funding allows graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to learn techniques relevant to their work from experts at outside institutions.

Donnelly’s commitment to mentoring students and fostering research partnerships has been a hallmark of his career. By promoting collaboration between other PRS centers and agencies, the eponymous awards enable the sharing of knowledge and the building of essential skills to forge scientific careers.

The 2022 recipients are Laura Dean, Ph.D.; Rebecca Dickman; Avinash Kumar, Ph.D.; Francisco Leniz; Martine Mathieu; Charlotte Wirth; and Melissa Woodward. Their research projects are presented below.

KC Donnelly Fellowships allow graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to study with experts at outside institutions. Top row, left to right: Kumar and Dickman. Middle row, left to right: Mathieu, Wirth and Dean. Bottom row, from left: Woodward and Leniz. (Image courtesy of MDB, Inc.)

Tackling PCBs

Laura Dean, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at the SRP Center at the University of Iowa. His externship will be at the National Center for Toxicology Research, a branch of the United States Food and Drug Administration, in Jefferson, Arkansas.

Dean plans to use cultures of human liver cells to study the role of cytochrome P450 proteins – which process foreign chemicals – in the metabolism of airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The research could inform future studies that assess PCB degradation by cytochromes P450 in the brain.

“My goal is to become an analytical and forensic toxicologist,” Dean said. “I’m excited to learn new techniques and experience what it’s like to work in a government agency lab.”

PFAS Research

Rebecca Dickman is a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she is working with Diana Aga, Ph.D., an SRP Individual Research Project recipient. She will do a remote internship with the US Environmental Protection Agency in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Dickman aims to assess how the presence of other compounds affects the behavior of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) during chemical analysis. These data will inform a preliminary computer model designed to quantify unknown PFAS in complex mixtures. Ultimately, such a model could be used to measure the effectiveness of remediation efforts in breaking down PFAS in environmental samples.

“Through this opportunity, I hope to hone my skills in data science and computational chemistry while improving techniques for identifying and quantifying unknown PFASs,” Dickman said.

Combustion by-products

Avinash Kumar, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher at the SRP Center at Louisiana State University, plans to complete an internship at the University of North Carolina at the Chapel Hill SRP Center.

There, Kumar will learn new techniques to analyze microorganisms and metabolic byproducts in mice that have been exposed to Environmentally Persistent Free Radicals (EPFR), a type of combustion byproduct. The goal is to better understand how an imbalance in microbial communities can affect the severity of influenza resulting from exposure to EPFR.

“Growing up in a rural area, I witnessed a lack of facilities and treatment options,” Kumar said. “I feel compelled to improve the understanding of common but endemic pathologies like influenza infection, nutritional disorders, inflammation and metabolic disorders.”

Filtering PFAS from water

Francois L.eniz is a doctoral student at the SRP Center at the University of Kentucky. His externship at Yale University, in conjunction with the Harvard SRP Center, will build on his previous work to create an artificial membrane that filters PFAS from water.

Léniz will learn technologies for separating arsenic from water, with the aim of developing a more efficient platform to treat water containing the toxic element and other substances of concern.

“This opportunity will help me improve my skills as a researcher and expand my collaborative work to ultimately provide innovative solutions to environmental health issues,” Léniz said.

Predict the dispersion of air pollution

Martine Matthew is a doctoral candidate at North Carolina State University and works with the SRP Center at Louisiana State University (LSU), where she uses spatial and statistical modeling to study particles, such as EPFRs, emanating from a Superfund site in Louisiana.

During her internship at the UI SRP Center, she will learn how to use AERMOD, a software that predicts the dispersion of atmospheric pollutants from their source. Eventually, Mathieu plans to integrate various data on air quality into a model that estimates levels of exposure to pollutants based on chemical concentrations.

“The knowledge I gain will improve my understanding of EPFR toxicity and lung disease,” Mathieu said. “I also look forward to expanding my professional network and helping the LSU SRC and UI SRP Centers collaborate.”

Lead exposure and cellular stress

Charlotte Wirt is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard University SRP Center. Her externship will involve research at the University of California, Berkeley SRP Center, where she will apply a molecular tagging technique to a culture of immune cells called microglia to see if lead exposure increases cellular stress.

Wirth hypothesizes that cellular stress may trigger the release of molecular signals from microglia that could contribute to the inflammation and neurotoxicity associated with lead exposure. His findings could help inform the identification of biomarkers, or biological signs, of cognitive impairment.

“As a tutor or teaching assistant for eight classes in my undergraduate career, I developed a passion for inspiring scientific interest in others,” Wirth said. “I hope to apply what I learned using the chemical labeling technique to my thesis work and to training others.”

Developing tools for measuring pollutants

Melissa Woodward, a doctoral candidate at the SRP Center at the University of Rhode Island, will travel to the SRP Center at Duke University for her externship.

Woodward’s graduate work involves developing sampling devices from resin-filled plastic tubes that absorb PFAS in the air. At Duke, Woodward will learn a new analytical technique for identifying PFAS in field samples. It will also investigate whether its samplers can measure other air pollutants, such as organophosphate esters.

“My goal is to create tools that can measure a wide range of pollutants in different environmental situations,” Woodward said. “By learning where they are, we can better understand human and animal exposure to these contaminants.”

(Julie Leibach is a senior science writer at MDB, Inc., a NIEHS Superfund research program contractor.)


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