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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

August 2023

Seven trainees awarded K.C. Donnelly Externships

Superfund Research Program funding helps trainees build new skills to protect health and broaden research experience at other institutions.

Seven NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) trainees won K.C. Donnelly Externship Award Supplements to conduct research outside of their host centers. The three-month-long externships provide current SRP-funded graduate students and postdoctoral researchers the opportunity to learn new methods and techniques, while working in other SRP-funded centers and government labs. The annual awards honor the legacy of researcher, mentor, and SRP grantee Kirby (K.C.) Donnelly, Ph.D. (See sidebar.)

“It’s exciting to see innovative connections between our centers,” said Acting SRP Branch Chief Michelle Heacock, Ph.D. “These trainees are proactive in collaborating and gaining new skills that will really push the needle forward in terms of protecting human health.”

Additional details about the seven trainees follow.

  • Eric Brown
    Mentored by Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., Brown explores the mechanisms by which complex chemical mixtures affect health throughout life. (Photo courtesy of Eric Brown)
    Eric Brown, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SRP Center, will travel to the Harvard University SRP Center to learn advanced statistical approaches for handling complex chemical mixtures.

    “This award will enhance my training to tackle complex environmental health questions, including upstream social determinants of health and disparities in exposure to mixtures and other stressors,” said Brown.
  • Asta Habtemichael
    Habtemichael studies how PFAS move in aquatic food webs under the mentorship of Rainer Lohmann, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Asta Habtemichael)
    Asta Habtemichael, of the University of Rhode Island SRP Center, will learn advanced molecular modeling techniques at the University of Pittsburgh to understand how differences in the structures of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) affect the chemicals' ability to accumulate in aquatic food webs.

    “This will allow me to collaborate with other scientists and develop interdisciplinary research projects that will reveal new insights toward protecting both environmental and public health,” Habtemichael said.
  • Nobel Hernández-Otero
    Hernández-Otero works with Carmen Velez-Vega, Ph.D., and Phil Brown, Ph.D., to understand how exposures to hazardous chemicals contribute to preterm birth. (Photo courtesy of Nobel Hernández-Otero)
    Nobel Hernández-Otero, of the University of Puerto Rico and a trainee with the Northeastern University SRP Center, will travel to East Carolina University to study under the direction of the North Carolina State University SRP Center and learn about PFAS exposure and potential health effects. He also will learn how to appropriately communicate about PFAS with affected communities.

    “This is a unique opportunity for me to continue learning about the effects of PFAS on human health, particularly pregnant women,” said Hernández-Otero. “It will also guide me on how to effectively bring this information to our communities in Puerto Rico.”
  • Maria Victoria Klaus
    Klaus develops advanced sorbent materials that bind to PFAS in water under the mentorship of J. Zach Hilt, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Klaus)
    Maria Victoria Klaus, of the University of Kentucky SRP Center, will determine which materials she designed to remove PFAS from water are safe and effective for also removing them from the body. Her externship will be at the Texas A&M University SRP Center.

    “The K.C. Donnelly award is an exciting opportunity to extend my research and skills while building relationships with my collaborators to provide innovative solutions to current and future environmental and health problems plaguing our society,” said Klaus.
  • Wil Lieberman-Cribbin
    Under the mentorship of Ana Navas-Acien, Ph.D., Lieberman-Cribbin studies the relationship between metals measured in drinking water and urine and cardiovascular disease among Native Americans. (Photo courtesy of Wil Lieberman-Cribbin)
    Wil Lieberman-Cribbin, of the Columbia University SRP Center, will travel to the Yale University SRP Center to learn new exposure assessment techniques that combine proximity to hazardous sites with contaminants measured in water and urine.

    “This experience will advance my career as an independent researcher by giving me experience in field work and water quality assessments that provide crucial context for my research,” Lieberman-Cribbin said.
  • Irene Martinez-Morata
    Co-mentored by Navas-Acien and Mary Gamble, Ph.D., Martinez-Morata explores how exposure to metals affects cardiometabolic health. (Photo courtesy of Irene Martinez-Morata)
    Irene Martinez-Morata, of the Columbia University SRP Center, will apply advanced analytical approaches to pinpoint how zinc supplements may protect health among Native American communities exposed to high levels of arsenic and uranium. While completing her externship at the University of New Mexico SRP Center, she also will directly engage with communities to translate study results.

    “This externship will provide me with invaluable training in understanding potential interventions to improve health among communities who experience a high burden of exposure to environmental chemicals,” Martinez-Morata explained.
  • Sara Thomas, Ph.D.
    Thomas works with Jason White, Ph.D., to develop nanomaterials that help hemp plants take up PFAS from soil. Part of this project will also assess how the nanomaterials affect PFAS degradation. (Photo courtesy of Sara Thomas)
    Sara Thomas, Ph.D., from the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station and an SRP trainee with Yale University, will travel to Princeton University to study the ability of microbes to safely degrade PFAS in plants used to decontaminate soil.

    “Collaborating with Princeton researchers will help me gain knowledge in micro- and molecular biology to address a critical challenge in PFAS bioremediation,” Thomas said. “This project will advance my goal to find sustainable and effective strategies to break down these forever chemicals.”

(Adeline Lopez is a science writer for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

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