Three assistant professors receive NSF CAREER awards

3/12/2019 Kristina Shidlauski

Written by Kristina Shidlauski

Above, left to right: Vishal Verma, Megan Konar and Ashlynn Stillwell

Three CEE assistant professors – Megan Konar, Ashlynn Stillwell and Vishal Verma – have been awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awards. CAREER awards, administered under the Faculty Early Career Development Program, are the NSF’s most prestigious form of support and recognition for junior faculty who “exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”

A National Strategy for a Resilient Food Supply Chain

Megan Konar
Megan Konar
Assistant Professor Megan Konar’s CAREER award is to understand the infrastructure that supports our national food system and assess its vulnerability to water stress, water hazards and degraded infrastructure.

Food supply chains in the United States have generally experienced few disruptions, but risks are increasing in potential frequency and severity. Extreme weather, unsustainable irrigation resources and degraded infrastructure pose future threats to food supply chains in the U.S. Since these food supply chains depend on interconnected infrastructure such as irrigation, roads, ports and harbors, rail lines and navigable waterways, Konar intends to evaluate the national food supply chain as a complex interdependent network. This approach will help identify critical vulnerabilities to the food supply chain that are not obvious when each infrastructure is evaluated in isolation.

“This research will provide a detailed understanding of the interdependent infrastructure networks that support national and global food security,” Konar said. “Discovery of critical vulnerabilities in the food supply chain of the United States could be used to prioritize national infrastructure investment funds.”

Water and Energy Sustainability in the Built Environment: Systems Science for the Blue City

Ashlynn Stillwell
Ashlynn Stillwell
Assistant Professor Ashlynn Stillwell’s CAREER award is to study the energy and water sustainability in the built environment at the city scale and at the residential household scale.

Water and energy are two highly interconnected resources: the use of one resource often requires use of the other. Innovations in infrastructure and policy at the energy-water nexus may help cities with their sustainability efforts. This project will move beyond the traditional sustainability paradigm of the "green city," which is focused primarily on energy. Instead, Stillwell will focus on water sustainability solutions, termed "blue city," as a synergistic component of energy sustainability. Stillwell will collect data on energy sustainability of the water sector in urban areas, gather smart meter data in residential homes, and integrate water data with energy data to predict city-scale outcomes from efficiency programs and investments.

“Water and energy are critical resources for life, and data-driven sustainable solutions can help better manage these resources,” Stillwell said. “I aim to understand how people use water and energy both at home and at the city level to create these sustainable solutions at a range of scales.”

A Comprehensive Assessment of the Reactive Oxygen Species Activity of Ambient Fine Particulate Matter and Its Association with the Chemical Composition

Vishal Verma
Vishal Verma
Assistant Professor Vishal Verma’s CAREER award is to develop a method to measure the capability of small air pollution particles, called PM2.5, to generate oxidants.

PM2.5 are ambient air pollution particles of sizes below 2.5 microns, which can be inhaled deep into human lungs. Once there, PM2.5 can cause damage to the lung tissues by generating oxidants. While methods exist to measure PM2.5 levels in mass abundance, these methods do not predict health risk because different particles create different amounts of oxidants. Verma will develop an automated instrument to measure the capability of PM2.5 to generate oxidants, and will quantify the results of particle constituents that generate oxidants using chemical characterization and modeling. Successful development of this technology will provide the ability to rapidly measure health risk.

“While ambient PM2.5 levels in the U.S. are far below the global average, it was ranked as the 13th highest risk factor for U.S. deaths in 2013,” Verma said. “Despite the confirmed association of PM2.5 concentrations with various human diseases, the mechanisms of causing the adverse health effects are not well understood. The capability of particles to generate reactive oxygen species is an important property of PM2.5, which could fill-in the missing link between these associations.”

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This story was published March 12, 2019.