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Faculty & Staff Honors

Faculty & Staff Honors

South Carolina Researchers Honored by National Science Foundation

Drs. Mohammed Baalousha and Eric Vejerano, assistant professors in the department of environmental health sciences (ENHS) and the SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR) at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, have been selected to serve as research fellows with the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). They have both received RII Track-4 fellowships—the first awards of their kind under EPSCoR’s RII Track 4 funding mechanism
[Photos: Dr. Mohammed Baalousha (left) and Dr. Eric Vejerano]

Designed to promote scientific progress nationwide, EPSCoR partners with government agencies, higher education, and private industry to produce sustainable improvements in research infrastructure and research and development capacity in a given jurisdiction. Out of more than 130 submissions, only the top applicants are chosen to serve as research fellows and receive funding for their proposed projects.

“I am so pleased that TWO! of our newest assistant professors have been successful in this very competitive EPSCoR Track 4 program,” says Dean Thomas Chandler, who is also a professor in the ENHS department. “Drs. Baalousha and Vejerano are cutting-edge experts in the environmental fate, behavior and toxic effects of emerging classes of nanomaterials in water and air environments. They came to the Arnold School with abundant scholarly and grantsmanship experience gained from postdoctoral fellowships in the very best laboratories for their respective fields so I am not too surprised that both were successful in this national program.”

“The NSF EPSCoR Program is highly competitive, and for two faculty members in the ENHS department to receive funding is truly remarkable and a reflection of the outstanding research ongoing within CENR, the department, and the Arnold School of Public Health,” adds ENHS chair Dr. Geoff Scott. “The research will further our knowledge of air and water pollution interactions with nanomaterials and resulting environmental health effects. It also provides outstanding opportunities for Drs. Baalousha and Vejerano and their graduate students to conduct research with US DOE researchers at specialized research facilities across the U.S., to learn new skills and technologies that can be applied to solving these important public health issues.”

Dr. Baalousha’s project, which will be supported with a $286K award through the NSF-EPSCoR program, aims to understand the molecular composition and properties of dissolved organic macromolecules which are susceptible to aggregation or being adsorbed onto natural particles. “Selective aggregation and sorption of these compounds to natural particles is highly relevant to a wide variety of environmental processes, yet they are poorly understood,” says Dr. Baalousha.

“The proposed research will impact a number of disciplines such as environmental science and engineering, aquatic biogeochemistry, carbon sequestration, and climate change,” says Dr. Baalousha. “It also has direct implications for environmental and human health as it may be used by water and wastewater treatment facilities to develop novel approaches to achieve higher removal of dissolved organic compounds.”

Dr. Vejerano’s fellowship, which will be supported by a $260K award through the EPSCoR program, aims to understand the molecular nature and mechanism of environmentally persistent free radicals (EPFRs) on nanoparticles. “These types of free radicals exist in significant concentration in airborne particles, and exposure to them has been implicated to a variety of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases,” he says. “However, the molecular nature of EPFRs is not fully known.”

“Understanding the nature of EPFRs will inform strategies to mitigate their formation in the environment such those during the burning of waste and fuels,” adds Dr. Vejerano. “Results from this fellowship will lead to a more accurate understanding of the human health impacts and the possible applications of EPFR as a unique class of environmental pollutant.”

This EPSCoR project, RII Track-4, provides opportunities to non-tenured investigators to further develop their research potential through extended collaborations. Dr. Baalousha’s project will take place at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. Dr. Vejerano will collaborate with researchers at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida. NHMFL is operated by the University of Florida, Florida State University, and Los Alamos National Lab.

This program presents multiple benefits for the researchers, the university and the state of South Carolina. By conducting the research over two summers, the program allows early career investigators to benefit from prolonged access to unique facilities, equipment, and techniques as well significant mentorship opportunities. This program will help overcome limitations to the existing knowledge base, which is currently hampered by the field’s great diversity and complexity and the limited resolution of the university-available mass spectrometers. In addition, the researchers will build specialized knowledge and skills that they can apply in their future research and pass on to the students they teach and mentor. Finally, the research that Drs. Baalousha and Vejerano conduct through the EPSCoR program, like all CENR research, will greatly improve  knowledge of environmental and human health.

“I am very proud of Drs. Vejerano’s and Baalousha’s success in this highly competitive NSF scheme’, says Dr. Jamie Lead, CENR director. “The success is based on the excellent science that our faculty are doing, and both exemplifies and takes forward the excellent research, teaching and outreach being performed within the CENR.”