Examining the effectiveness of remediation efforts at the Grasse River Superfund site using polyethylene film passive samplers

Mentor: Dr. LORETTA FERNANDEZ

Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Northeastern University
Research Interests: Environmental organic chemistry; passive sampling methods for organic contaminants in water and sediments; transport, transformation, and biological exchange of organic contaminants in the environment.

Project Description:
The Grasse River Superfund site in Massena, NY includes PCB contaminated sediments along 7.2 miles of river.  Due to unusual conditions at this site, where contaminant concentrations increase with depth down to layers of bedrock or glacial till, all remedial alternatives include capping in order to limit the exposure of benthic organisms to contamination and to sequester the PCBs in deep sediments. Because this river has been affected by scouring due to ice jams in the past, an armored cap will be installed over approximately 59 acres of the main river channel.  This project will use polyethylene passive samplers along with novel deployment methods to determine the magnitude and relative importance of different transport mechanisms for PCBs across the engineered cap.

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The undergraduate research assistant will assist the PI and graduate student to prepare polymer films, design and construct deployment apparatus, develop analytical methods for a gas chromatograph tandem mass spectrometer, and analyze samples as they are returned to the lab.  Field-work will be conducted in late April with the assistance of an EPA dive team.  Complimentary bench-top experiments will be conducted at Northeastern University and the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, MS. A copy of the full proposal is available upon request. 

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Social Equity and Environmental Justice in Urban Water Systems: Transitioning Toward Sustainable Urban Water Systems

Mentors: Dr. Sharon Harlan and Dr. Laura Senier

Dr. Sharon Harlan
Professor, Health Sciences and Sociology, Northeastern University

Research Interests: Exploring the human impacts of climate change that are dependent upon people’s positions in social hierarchies, places in built environments of unequal quality, and policies that improve or impede human adaptive capabilities.

Dr. Laura Senier
Assistant Professor, Health Sciences and Sociology, Northeastern University

Research Interests: Integration of novel biomedical technologies into public health chronic disease prevention programming; barriers in research translation; promoting evidence-based practice in health professions and in public health practice; community environmental health; formation and maintenance of multistakeholder coalitions in environmental justice communities; the effects of access to green and blue spaces on mental health and well-being among urban teenagers.

Project Description:
Social equity and environmental justice are essential qualities of sustainable solutions for urban water systems because the health and well-being of low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities have historically been and continue to be adversely affected by the cost and quality of water, the placement of hazardous facilities in their neighborhoods, and the inaccessibility of attractive and protective water features. These communities often bear more health burdens of water problems and receive fewer benefits than others.  The goal of this project is to undertake social science studies of water inequities and injustices in urban areas of the United States.

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Students will join a team of researchers at Northeastern University that is conducting several different studies of the interests of marginalized groups who are typically not given the opportunity to participate in decision-making about access to clean water, water pricing, exposure to water hazards, and water governance.  The team is analyzing interviews with community organization leads and household surveys about hardships associated with water costs and perceptions of water-related risks such as quality, scarcity and floods. We are also collecting pilot data for a study of inner-city youth and how access to water recreation affects their mental health and well-being.

Students who work on this project may help transcribe interviews and use computer software to analyze textual data. They may participate in field work in local communities. Students trained in basic statistics may analyze social survey data. They will gain a better understanding of environmental injustice and water-related health issues situated within diverse urban contexts, and receive training and skill development in analyzing qualitative or quantitative methods. They will work as part of a team with other students and faculty.

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Investigate the link between environmental exposures, sucking skills and neurodevelopmental outcomes in children born in Puerto Rico

Mentor: Dr. Emily Zimmerman

Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northeastern University
Research Interests: Creating assessments and therapeutic interventions that enhance suck, swallow, respiration, and neurodevelopmental outcomes – multisensory interventions that improve suck and oral feeding in preterm infants.

Project Description:
Puerto Rican children are exposed to an array of environmental exposures that place them at a heightened risk for neurodevelopmental delays. To assess infant brain development in the Center for Research on Early Childhood Exposure and Development in Puerto Rico (CRECE), we use non-nutritive suck (NNS) measurements – a novel, yet well-validated measure that has been used in neonatal intensive care research but to date has not been applied to environmental epidemiology. Importantly, NNS measures are non-invasive and non-subjective. CRECE will measure NNS immediately after birth, thus having the potential to detect exposure related effects earlier than they are typically found in biomarkers and evaluations that take place later in childhood.

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NNS may also provide a more nuanced understanding of dose-response relationships, increasing the study’s relevance to policy and regulatory limits in other exposure settings. In addition to NNS, we also assess the effects of environmental exposures on neurodevelopmental outcomes (speech, language, cognition, motor) through standardized tests and parental questionnaires in the same cohort of infants until age four. 

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Integrated assessment modeling of energy, air quality, and health links

Mentor: Dr. Matthew Eckelman

Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Northeastern University
Research Interests: Environmental impacts of metals production, use, emissions, and recovery; life cycle assessment of products and services; systems modeling of bioenergy and bio-based industrial chemicals; material and energy use in urban environments and civil infrastructure.

Project Description:
This ROUTES scholar position will work in the energy and environmental modeling realm, in support of a federally-funded center focused on the links between energy use, emissions, and public health. The purpose of this project is to examine modifiable factors affecting environmental quality and health, specifically investment and operations in energy systems, manufacturing and materials as inputs to the energy sector and on-road vehicles. This project advances understanding of regional differences in emissions and how energy and climate factors contribute to those differences, and the development of methods for evaluating strategies on national and regional scales to address these emissions using energy/emissions modeling systems. The project will model energy transitions in the U.S between 2010 and 2050 and look at different scenarios and their interactions with climate change. The project will also forecast emissions over a set of pollutants using the National Energy Modeling System (NEMS) and life cycle assessment (LCA) tools and use downscaled scenario emissions needed for air quality simulations.

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The ROUTES scholar will be primarily engaged in computer modeling. Specifically, the scholar will be responsible for gathering detailed emissions factors and geospatial information for energy and industrial point sources (including PM species) for later integration into the NEMS model. The scholar will also work with the new EPA release of the geospatial model behind the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) to gather geospatial information. The scholar will develop a detailed familiarity with energy generation and industrial processes and their associated emissions. The work will be carried out under Dr. Matthew Eckelman in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

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Development of the groundwater remediation technologies at the laboratory and pilot scale, as a part of research at PROTECT Center

Mentor: Dr. Akram Alshawabkeh

Director, ROUTES; PI/Co-Director, PROTECT and CRECE; George A. Snell Professor of Engineering, Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Northeastern University

Project Description:
This ROUTES scholar position will work with PROTECT Center with the project focused on the long-term goal to develop novel, sustainable, solar-powered and environmentally-friendly electrochemical technologies for remediation of contaminated groundwater, especially in karst regions of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has suffered from extensive water contamination due to industrial and medical waste which have led to adverse health outcomes in the population’s men women and children. By using solar panels to apply low direct electric currents through electrodes in wells to manipulate groundwater chemistry by electrolysis the project will target contaminants like chlorinated solvents, specifically trichloroethylene (TCE), but the process will also be designed to treat other common groundwater contaminants and their mixtures.  The goals are relevant to the EPA’s strategic plan for compliance and environmental stewardship, which strives for cleanup programs that use natural resources and energy efficiently, reduce negative impacts on the environment, minimize pollution at its source, and reduce waste to the greatest extent possible.

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The ROUTES scholar will conduct literature research on findings in the electrochemical groundwater remediation technologies as well as attend the webinars and seminars organized by PROTECT Center with the goal to expand knowledge in the field of Environmental Health. The scholar will conduct the laboratory scale experiments for the optimization of electrochemical remediation technologies developed by PROTECT Center (experiments design, setup and samples analysis) and the pilot scale experiments on the optimized remediation technologies (experiments design, setup and samples analysis). The scholar will also conduct analysis and evaluation of experimental data and assist with scientific papers preparation.

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Chemical regulation and policy involving per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS; also called perfluourinated compounds, PFCs).

Mentor: Dr. Phil Brown

Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences, Northeastern University; Director, Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute
Research Interests: Disputes over environmental causation of illness, community response to toxic waste-induced disease, biomonitoring and household exposure to toxics, environmental health research ethics, and health social movements.

Project Description:
With two large grants received in September 2018, the PFAS Project is increasing its already large range of activities. Four ROUTES students have already worked on this project, and some continue after their ROUTES co-op. They are part of the PFAS Project, a lab group within the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI). The PFAS Project includes 2 faculty members, 2 postdocs, 4 graduate students, and 2 undergraduates.  ROUTES scholars are part of the larger SSEHRI and the NIEHS-funded T-32 Training Program, “Transdisciplinary Training at the Intersection of Environmental Health and Social Science,” which offers them a broad array of environmental health learning and practice opportunities.

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Our NSF grant from the STS Program, “The New Chemical Class Activism: Mobilization Around Per- and Polyfluoralkyl Substances,” will analyze the characteristics of local organizing using our Contamination Site Database; analyze the origins, influences, priorities, and outcomes of a new form of chemical class activism, and understand how community groups use and interpret emerging science by collaborating on water sampling with a PFAS community group. Our NIEHS R01 grant, “Assessment of pediatric immunotoxicity, public education, and capacity-building in communities impacted by PFAS-contaminated drinking water,” will quantify associations of child serum PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, and total PFASs with a) serum antibody levels following diphtheria and tetanus (DTaP) vaccinations and b) metabolomic profiles; develop an innovative online resource center, the PFAS Exchange, develop report-back materials for study participants, and engage with residents of affected communities, medical professionals, and other stakeholders; and assess individual, family, and community-level experiences of residents in areas impacted by PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

Tasks include:  Interview scientists, affected residents, government regulatory officials, manufacturers, retailers, and advocates on history of PFAS use, voluntary phase-outs, state and federal regulation, clean-up, and chemical substitution. Compile historical material and legal transcripts involving areas of PFAS contamination. Work on Contamination Site Database of contamination episodes, and help analyze data. Transcribe interviews, enter transcripts and other data into qualitative methods software, and conduct analysis. Assist in developing and maintaining website for international compilation of materials on PFAS. Co-author journal articles. Assist the newly founded national coalition of PFAS-affected communities that was founded as a result our June 2017 national conference at Northeastern. Help organize national conference for June 2019. Maintain our widely-visited website. Coordinate monthly newsletter that incorporates material from a number of partner organizations.

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DNA damage study using biochemical assays, biophysical methods, and molecular biology techniques

Mentor: Dr. Penny Beuning

Associate Professor, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Northeastern University
Research Interests: Cellular responses to DNA damage, Y family DNA polymerases and mutagenic replication of DNA, and dynamics of proteins that regulate DNA damage responses.

Project Description:
This ROUTES scholar position will conduct work with Penny Beuning to develop an understanding of how cells respond to DNA damage. DNA damage is ubiquitous and can arise from many sources, including from ultraviolet light and other environmental sources such as pollution and foods. In all organisms there are overlapping pathways to identify and remove DNA damage. However, DNA damage can evade repair pathways and block or stall the process of copying DNA that is required for cell division, which is known as DNA replication. Disrupted DNA replication can lead to mutagenesis and can be lethal to a cell. A specialized family of DNA polymerases with the ability to copy damaged DNA contributes to DNA damage tolerance. Notably, these polymerases do not repair DNA, but rather allow DNA replication to continue in the presence of DNA damage. These specialized polymerases are characterized by their low fidelity on undamaged DNA and are therefore mutagenic. Individuals with defects in DNA pol eta, which copies DNA containing lesions that result from UV light, are predisposed to skin cancer.

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For this project the scholar will research the specificity of DNA polymerases for different types of DNA damage, how dynamic interactions between “normal” DNA polymerases, specialized DNA polymerases, and other DNA replication proteins contribute to DNA damage tolerance, and which of the numerous cellular pathways contribute to tolerance to DNA damage. This will be accomplished using biochemical assays, biophysical methods, and molecular biology techniques. The exact project is flexible and will be based on discussion with the applicant. Through this work the Routes scholar will gain an understanding of modern problems and techniques in biochemistry and biotechnology research. The scholar will gain experience in experimental design including the use of appropriate controls. Research experiences include site-directed mutagenesis, molecular cloning, protein purification, biochemical assays, and characterization of cellular responses to DNA damaging agents and mutagens. Scholars are expected to have or be willing to develop excellent laboratory technique. They will be fully active members of the laboratory group, including attending group meetings, discussing research results, and reading and discussing the primary literature. The scholars will be expected to demonstrate creativity and critical thinking in designing experiments and analyzing results.

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Treating Water Pollutants with Photochemistry

Mentor: Dr. Philip Larese-Casanova

Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Northeastern University
Research Interests: Environmental chemistry and mineralogy; transformation and remediation of water pollutants; nanomaterial sorbents for water treatment.

Project Description:
Pollutants can severely impact the quality of our water resources, and this project will address how water pollutants can be treated using photochemical reactions.  Photochemistry involves the reactions between light, water, pollutants, and dissolved solutes to create reactive compounds that can transform pollutants and improve water quality.

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The student will conduct experiments to explore how different classes of water pollutants transform under simulated solar irradiation and to develop ways to photochemically remediate water pollutants. The student is expected to have basic knowledge of general chemistry and solution preparation.  Laboratory experience is strongly desired but not required.   The student will be trained to use a photochemical reactor and chromatography techniques for measuring pollutants.    

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 Theoretical and computational chemistry and computational biology

Mentor: Dr. Mary Jo Ondrechen

Professor, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Northeastern University
Research Interests: Theoretical chemical biology/physics focusing on: understanding the fundamental basis for enzyme catalysis, functional genomics – prediction of the functional roles of gene products (proteins), modeling of enzyme-substrate interactions, drug discovery, and bioinformatics.

Project Description:
Prof. Ondrechen’s research group specializes in theoretical and computational chemistry and computational biology. Areas of interest include: 1) Understanding the fundamental basis for enzyme catalysis; 2) Functional genomics – prediction of the functional roles of gene products (proteins); 3) Protein engineering; 4) Drug discovery; and 5) Bioinformatics.

With the sequencing of the human genome and the genomes of hundreds of species of interest, Structural Genomics (SG) projects have now reported over 14,000 new protein structures. The next question is: What do these structures actually do? Prof. Ondrechen’s group is developing methods to predict protein function from structure.

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Our THEMATICS (see Ondrechen et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 98, 12473, 2001) and POOL (see Tong, Wei, Murga, Ondrechen and Williams, PLoS Computational Biology, 2009) methods predict the residues involved in biochemical function, require only the structure of the query protein, and thus work for proteins that bear no resemblance to previously characterized proteins. Our SALSA method (see Wang, Yin, et al. BMC Bioinformatics, 14(Suppl 3):S13, 2013) uses these predicted functional residues to determine biochemical function. In our ongoing project, funded by NSF CHE-1305655, we are predicting and verifying the biochemical function of SG proteins that are currently of unknown function. Within this project, we are seeking enzymes that can catalyze reactions for biomass conversion or for bioremediation.

Another current project explores the multilayer nature of enzyme active sites – we are able to predict when remote amino acid residues are involved in catalysis. We work in collaboration with experimentalists to test and verify our predictions pertaining to multilayer active sites. A current project, funded by NSF-MCB-1517290, is studying the role of these distal residues for protein design applications.

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