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Through research, K-12 education, and community outreach, CENR develops the field of environmental nanoscience

August 24, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, 

Now in its fifth year, the Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR) is continuing to grow in collaborators, resources and influence. This SmartState Center has expanded to include six faculty members and over 20 doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows since director and professor of environmental nanoscience and risk Jamie Lead established it in August of 2012.

In parallel with ramping up the number of lab members, CENR has garnered over $2.5 million since its inception. This funding has resulted in over 80 peer-reviewed publications since 2012, as well as other traditional and creative forms of knowledge dissemination, exchange and teaching.

The overlapping aims of CENR are twofold. The first is to look at manufactured nanoparticles, such as those in runoff from building facades, and washing of nano-enabled textiles as contaminants. CENR studies how these nanoparticles affect environmental and human health and explores ways to minimize risks from these contaminants.

The second goal is to harness the powerful capabilities of nanoparticles in order to maximize benefits from this branch of science. With six established or submitted patents from Lead, the researchers at CENR have already made significant progress in using nanoparticles to replace inadequate existing techniques (e.g., oil contamination cleanup) and solve widespread problems (e.g., reducing negative impacts of fungi on crops while leveraging the benefits of these key micro-organisms) to improve environmental and human health.

CENR members, including experts in soil, water, atmosphere, and social science, are not only changing the world from within the lab, they are traveling around the world to educate others about nanoscience, learn from other experts, and build collaborations. For example, Lead recently received invitations to give lectures locally (e.g., South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control), nationally (Colorado School of the Mines; American Chemical Society in San Francisco and Minnesota), and internationally (e.g., NanoImpact, Switzerland; IUPAC, Mexico).

Earlier this year, CENR hosted a scientist from the United Kingdom, Richard Palmer, who provided seminars to students and worked alongside CENR researchers for several weeks to share ideas and develop opportunities for future joint projects. Last year, CENR hosted Simon Apte from the Australian government research institute, CSIRO. Both exchanges have led to substantial research collaborations. In addition, Lead is the Editor-in-Chief of the Elsevier journal NanoImpact, which publishes scholarly articles on the impacts of nanoscale materials and has been funded to develop new methods for the analysis of nanoparticles in complex systems.

The funding for CENR includes awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF), United States Army Research Office (USARO), South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, and industry. Funding from USARO for assistant professor Eric Vejerano supports a project that investigates the sorption of volatile and hazardous chemicals on particles. The project’s overall goal is to improve prediction and understanding of the environmental and human health impacts of volatile chemicals.

A supplement to the grant from USARO enabled Vejerano’s Environmental Nanoscience Air Quality (ENAQ) Lab to host Michelle Casey, a USC undergraduate student, as a research apprentice with the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program. ENAQ also hosted Abigail Evans, a student from the South Carolina Governor’s School of Science and Mathematics working on the same project. A similar opportunity is available for one high school student under the High School Research Apprenticeship Program or one undergraduate student for next summer at the ENAQ Lab. The Army Education Outreach Program funds these programs.

NSF funding for assistant professor Mohammed Baalousha includes the most prestigious NSF award for young faculty, the NSF CAREER award, and a standard NSF grant. The aims for these projects are to investigate the effect of nanoparticle dispersity on their environmental behaviors and to develop analytical approaches to detect and quantify engineered nanoparticles in environmental systems. An NSF REU (research experience for undergraduates) supplement supports two USC undergraduate students, Madeline Terpiloswski and Katelin Thomas, to perform research on extraction and characterization of natural nanoparticles from surface waters and soils in South Carolina.

Funding from the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium supports Baalousha in investigating the non-point source contamination in South Carolina. His lab also hosted Anny Mcelvenny, a student from the South Carolina Governor’s School of Science and Mathematics, for a summer internship to investigate the effect of NOM on nanoparticle aggregation kinetics.

Evans and Mcelvenny are the two most recent students from the Governor’s School to conduct research with CENR. The SmartState Center has hosted between two and five students from the Governor’s School every year since 2013, establishing a close partnership between the two institutions to foster interest and experience in future scientists.  

In other work, research associate professor Robin “Buz” Kloot has traveled throughout the state (e.g., Dillon, Laurens County, Williamsburg) and beyond (e.g., Carroll, Ohio) to speak on soil health. Christopher Toumey, a research associate professor who specializes in societal and cultural issues in nanotechnology, leads a CENR tour for Columbia high school students (see photo above). This annual event begins with an introduction to nanotechnology presentation and then a demonstration of the various, highly technical equipment housed in the lab. Toumey has four commentaries each year in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, a platform for showing scientists and engineers in nanotechnology that the humanities and social sciences can contribute to our understanding of nanotechnology. Since his first commentary in the first issues of the journal in 2006, he has made approximately fifty such commentaries.

These outreach activities are just a few of several efforts (e.g., K-12 partnerships with the South Carolina State Museum) made by CENR to engage future scientists in this growing field.

CENR perfects revolutionary technique for cleaning up oil contamination

CENR researchers use nanoparticles to learn when toxicity occurs in the food chain

CENR’s Mohammed Baalousha serves as an invited speaker at international conference

ENHS/CENR student joins Carolina Diversity Professors Program

Doctoral student Shelby Butz finds a world of opportunities and a second family at Carolina

CENR engages K-12 children on the topic of nanomaterials with new program at EdVenture

Jamie Lead receives USC Educational Foundation Award for Research in Health Sciences

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