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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

August 2021

K.C. Donnelly Externship Awards celebrate 10 years

In the past decade, 72 NIEHS Superfund Research Program trainees were able to conduct research beyond their own institutions.

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) recently marked the 10th anniversary of the K.C. Donnelly Externship Award Supplement.

“Our greatest asset is the new generation of transdisciplinary professionals trained at SRP Centers,” said SRP Director William Suk, Ph.D. “Many of them have moved on to leverage their K.C. Donnelly experiences at other academic institutions, engineering firms, and federal and state agencies.”

Through the annual awards, trainees work side-by-side with researchers in other areas of expertise to learn new methods and techniques, and they tackle difficult scientific questions that could not be answered before.

Celys Irizarry Irizarry was a graduate trainee through the Northeastern University SRP Center. (Photo courtesy of Celys Irizarry)

Preserving natural resources

Celys Irizarry received one of the first K.C. Donnelly Externship Awards in 2011. She is now a civil engineer technician at the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Puerto Rico.

For her externship, Irizarry worked at the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Puerto Rico Department of Health.

“The research and professional skills learned during my externship have allowed me to continue innovating to look for solutions to preserve natural resources and improve agricultural production in rural areas,” said Irizarry.

Water contamination and soil toxicity

Steven O’Connell, Ph.D., a 2012 award recipient, is now a senior scientist at MyExposome, Inc., a small business he helped co-found along with his former mentor at the Oregon State University (OSU) SRP Center, Kim Anderson, Ph.D.

O’Connell’s externship took place at the Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund site, where he worked with EPA remediation specialists to develop a passive sampling device to measure water contaminants.

“Technologies stemming from this research have assisted other students and researchers examining contaminant levels at multiple Superfund sites,” said O’Connell, who also works part-time at OSU, helping students with passive sampling research.

Former OSU SRP Center trainee Leah Chibwe, Ph.D., received a K.C. Donnelly Award in 2013 to travel to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) SRP Center to study the toxicity of soils after being cleaned up with microbes.

She is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto studying the toxic effects of plastic pollution.

“My externship brought together expertise from multiple fields to address a complex environmental problem,” said Chibwe. “This gave me a new appreciation for the importance of collaborations.”

Steven O’Connell and Leah Chibwe “With this externship, I gained a deep understanding about study design for new environmental monitoring tools, such as MyExposome’s silicone wristband,” O’Connell, left, said. (Photo courtesy of Steven O’Connell)

“Before the externship, I had no experience working with cells or anything biological. I was able to learn a new technique beyond my discipline and use it for my future research,” said Chibwe, right. (Photo courtesy of Leah Chibwe)

Organic pollutants, arsenic exposure

Christopher Olivares, Ph.D., a 2014 award recipient, recently joined the University of California Irvine as an assistant professor.

For his externship, Olivares traveled to OSU to complement his remediation research on organic pollutants with studies that evaluated the toxicity of those chemicals to animals in the environment.

“The K.C. Donnelly Externship helped me gain confidence in pursuing collaborations and grant-writing skills, which have been quite useful now that I lead my own research lab,” said Olivares.

Jessica Laine, Ph.D., received a 2016 K.C. Donnelly Award to travel to the Columbia University SRP Center.

“This work allowed me to model hypothetical interventions to regulate arsenic metabolism through nutrition, which could inform real-world applications to reduce exposure,” she said. “Participating in the externship helped me to promote transdisciplinary and translational research, a skill vital to protect the health of the women and children that we study.”

Laine is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bern in Portugal, where she studies pregnancy health outcomes related to environmental exposures.

Christopher Olivares and Jessica Laine “The continued support by my externship mentor, OSU SRP Center Director Robyn Tanguay, Ph.D., has been a source of inspiration for pursuing a career in academia,” said Olivares, left, a former University of Arizona SRP Center trainee. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Olivares)

“As a trainee at the UNC SRP Center I found the networking and training opportunities and support in the SRP community unparalleled to other scientific programs and communities,” said Laine, right. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Laine)
Victoria Parker, Ph.D. “My experience at the University of Kentucky SRP Center helped me to develop the research, data analysis, communications, and project management skills needed to succeed in my current role,” said Parker, who completed her doctoral training at University of Iowa SRP Center. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Parker)

Endocrine disruption

2017 award winner Victoria Parker, Ph.D., traveled to the University of Kentucky SRP Center, where she learned laboratory techniques to investigate how contaminants disrupt the endocrine system.

Parker is now a research associate manager at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in the Antibody-Drug Conjugate division.

“Participating in this externship helped me build connections with other award winners and promoted collaborations, resulting in a network of people that support and encourage me throughout my professional journey,” said Parker.

(Mali Velasco is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.)

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