Pitt | Swanson Engineering
News Listing

May

May
11
2021

CEE Postdoctoral Surface Model Development and Evaluation Position

Civil & Environmental, Open Positions

Interested in learning and gaining valuable interdisciplinary research experiences, from data science to modeling in ecohydrology and water related fields to enrich your modeling and data analytics experiences? Please apply for this postdoctoral position in the civil & environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.We are recruiting a highly self-motivated postdoctoral associate for a funded project with a start date of summer 2021 or fall 2021. The initial appointment is for one year with the possibility of extension for additional one to two years depending on performance and the project needs. The postdoctoral associate would work under the supervision of Professor Xu Liang (email: xuliang@pitt.edu) at the University of Pittsburgh (https://www.engineering.pitt.edu/XuLiang/). Project Description:The postdoctoral associate, as part of a larger project team, would work on developing and evaluating a new land surface and eco-hydrological model based on new theory (e.g., optimality) and newly available rich observations. These related aspects of the modeling development work are part of an international collaborative project where a next-generation model of the terrestrial biosphere and its interactions with the carbon cycle, water cycle and climate will be developed. The goal of the entire project is to eventually yield more reliable projections of future climates which could give a newfound ability to address issues in sustainability, including the potential to maintain the biosphere’s capacity to regulate the carbon cycle while benefiting human well-being and development. The postdoctoral associate will have an opportunity to work with top scientists around the world from multiple universities/institutions with diverse expertise.Candidate Qualifications/Requirements:• Hold a Ph.D. degree prior to the start date of the postdoctoral appointment with research experiences in at least one or more of the following areas: land surface modeling, eco- hydrological modeling, regulation of plant hydraulics on land-atmosphere interaction, computational hydrology; and knowledge on VIC (Variable Infiltration Capacity) model, VIC+ model, and vegetation  dynamic modeling would be a plus;• Possess strong coding skills in at least C and/or Python, additional skills in GIS, Matlab, R, and Fortran are a plus, and have modeling experiences over large spatial scales;• Possess excellent oral and written communication skills• Lead the preparation of research publications for submission to peer-reviewed academic journals based on the research undertaken• Be able to manage own academic research and associated activities along with the ability to work independently and within a multidisciplinary team as required;• Have a strong work ethic and time management skills;• Candidates should be highly self-motivated, responsible, intellectually curious and enthusiastic about the project research, and interested in model development by writing computer codes;• Be committed to advancing diversity and inclusion. Additional experience in the following aspects is highly desirable:• Have experiences of coupling different models (e.g., a land surface model with a dynamic vegetation model)• Be able to handle and analyze large datasets• Be familiar with numerical methods (e.g., finite difference, finite volume, and/or finite element methods)Review of applications will begin immediately and will continue until the position is filled. Forfurther information or questions about this position you may contact Professor Xu Liang directly (xuliang@pitt.edu).Your application should include:•      Cover letter•      Curriculum Vitae•      1-page statement of your career goals and how this position will help you achieve your goals•      Unofficial academic transcripts for B.S. and graduate studies•      Contact information for three referencesApplications are being accepted to Requisition 21003101 at join.pitt.edu.Candidates from underrepresented minority groups and women are strongly encouraged to apply for this position. The University of Pittsburgh is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer and values equality of opportunity, human dignity and diversity, EOE, including disability/vets. The University of Pittsburgh offers an excellent health insurance benefit together with other benefits. Pittsburgh has been consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in the US (https://www.visitpittsburgh.com/media/press-kit/pittsburgh-accolades/).

Mar

Mar
25
2021

CEE Xu Liang to participate in Land Ecosystem Models based On New Theory, obseRvations and ExperimEnts (LEMONTREE) project

Civil & Environmental

PITTSBURGH (March 25, 2021) ... A University of Pittsburgh team, led by Xu Liang from Swanson School of Engineering, will collaborate with top scientists around the world in a new thrust to study Land Ecosystem of the Earth in the project called LEMONTREE funded by Schmidt Futures and under the umbrella of VESRI, the Virtual Earth System Research Institute (https://schmidtfutures.com/our-work/scientific-knowledge/vesri/). The Pitt team will develop a land surface model VIC++, a significant extension of the VIC model, based on new theory and newly available rich observations. The VIC model has been widely used both nationally and internationally. It is also one of the models used in the NASA Land Data Assimilation System (LDAS). The official announcement of the thrust reads as follows: Reading University will be coordinating a new 5-year project Land Ecosystem Models based On New Theory, obseRvations and ExperimEnts (LEMONTREE) funded by Schmidt Futures and under the umbrella of VESRI, the Virtual Earth System Research Institute. LEMONTREE will develop a next-generation model of the terrestrial biosphere and its interactions with the carbon cycle, water cycle and climate. The LEMONTREE approach draws on eco-evolutionary optimality theory as a basis for building ecosystem models that rest on firm theoretical and empirical foundations, and that can be incorporated into the land-surface component of climate models. These models should eventually yield more reliable projections of future climates. This could give a newfound ability to address issues in sustainability, including the potential to maintain the biosphere’s capacity to regulate the carbon cycle while benefiting human well-being and development. LEMONTREE is an international consortium with participants from Reading, Imperial College London, Columbia University, the University of Pittsburgh, UC Berkeley, Utrecht University, Seoul National University, Texas Tech University, Tsinghua University, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the UK Met Office and the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts. Sandy Harrison, project lead for Reading University, says "The Lemontree consortium have been collaborating informally for several years, and I am very excited that with the support of Eric and Wendy Schmidt by recommendation of the Schmidt Futures program, we have the opportunity to fast-track our efforts to create a better understanding of the way the terrestrial biosphere works and how this impacts biogeochemical cycles, climate and feedbacks to ecosystem services."

Mar
23
2021

Opening the Door for Women in Engineering at Pitt

All SSoE News, Civil & Environmental, Electrical & Computer, Industrial, MEMS, Student Profiles

When Emmy Lou Haller decided to study engineering at the beginning of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “It takes a lot of courage to go into a school where the students are all men.” The numbers have improved since Haller earned her degree in industrial engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. Today, first-year female recruitment in the Swanson School of Engineering is nearing 40 percent, and women represent a third of the undergraduate population and more than a quarter of graduate students. That’s an impressive feat for a discipline that is typically male-dominated – and above the 21.9 percent of women who earned engineering degrees in the U.S., according to a 2018 study by the American Society for Engineering Education. “When I was an undergrad in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, I was typically one of two or three girls in a classroom of 40 students. I only had two female engineering professors during my entire undergraduate studies,” said Katherine Hornbostel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science. “This often led me to feel like I didn’t belong or have what it takes to be a successful engineer.” This feeling partially inspired Hornbostel to become a professor and improve female representation in engineering education. “I want future female engineering students to have a role model and feel like they belong,” she said. “Whenever I teach undergraduates at Pitt, I’m so encouraged by the number of female students in my classroom. I love how they seem so comfortable speaking up and asking questions. Representation truly makes a difference.” Back in 1933 and despite being the only woman among a crowd of male peers, Haller enjoyed her studies and graduated at the top of her class. Coming from a family of engineers and preferring mathematics to dolls, her career choice was destined, but the journey would be difficult. For Haller, who transferred to Pitt from the all-women’s Sweet Briar College after her freshman year, community had to be found outside of the classroom. In addition to her engineering studies, Haller was also a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma and Quax, a women's honorary science sorority founded by seven female science majors in 1919. Today, more so than in the early 20th century, women at Pitt can still find opportunities to connect with their peers through numerous groups, such as DIVA (Determined Intelligent Victorious Available), a student run organization dedicated to empowering women of color in the Swanson School. Engineering alumna Brianna Pinckney (BS CEE’15) got her first taste of female leadership when she was asked to lead DIVA by her mentor Yvette Moore, director of Pitt EXCEL. “I had no idea this role would unleash an unknown passion to support, challenge and help expose other women to achieving personal and professional opportunities they most likely would not consider for themselves,” she said. “Women-led organizations have also taught me that we (women) don't have to compete for success; we're stronger as a unit by encouraging and celebrating each other and building off of previous success stories.” These organizations have effectively helped women create community and network of support in pursuing research and a career in STEM. Confidence to Succeed Amid New Challenges Haller’s research at Pitt included studying downtown department stores and determining the amount of light that attracts the most public attention to store window displays. She hoped to continue research in Pittsburgh after graduation and was optimistic about her prospects. “I think the average woman can accomplish more with a buttonhook or a hair pin than the average man does with the aid of a step ladder, a whole set of tools and a wife to hand him things,” she said in the Post-Gazette article. Haller’s enthusiasm for engineering and bold career move helped open the door for other women to enter the field; however, for some, the journey still is not simple. “As a female engineer, we are often told to quickly establish our presence and find our voice amongst the sea of men in our industry; as a minority female, the pressure to define your role and prove your worth is only intensified,” Pinckney said. “With more than five years of industry experience under my belt, I've challenged myself to engage in conversations and opportunities that positively highlight my knowledge, experience and ultimately my worth as a team member.” As the field continues to grow and adapt to the changing workforce, leaders and mentors play a pivotal role in motivating and inspiring people of all genders, races, and backgrounds. “Having a support system through EXCEL, DIVA, and our advisor Ms. Moore has been crucial to my success as an engineer,” said Fodun Ologunde, a senior computer engineering student who also serves as a leader and social media chair of DIVA. “From professional workshops to wellness seminars, the ladies created a safe space and provided the motivation to keep going. It is always encouraging to engage with women who have shared experiences and who genuinely care about my success and wellbeing as an engineer and also as a friend.” During Women’s History Month and the 175th anniversary of the Swanson School of Engineering, the university community can also celebrate 98 years of women in engineering at Pitt. “I’m proud of what we have accomplished in the Swanson School, and it is a legacy which I think Emmy Lou Haller would be tremendously proud,” said Mary Besterfield-Sacre, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor of Industrial Engineering. “However, we still have a way to go to not only have parity, but to improve equity within the field itself. To do that, we will continue to recruit the next generation of women engineering students to Pitt.” # # # Image 1: Katherine Hornbostel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials scienceImage 2: Brianna Pinckney (BS CEE’15), Business Development Engineer, Turner ConstructionImage 3: Fodun Ologunde, a senior computer engineering student and leader and social media chair of DIVAImage 4: Mary Besterfield-Sacre, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor of Industrial Engineering, and Director of the Engineering Education Research Center

Mar
18
2021

For Women’s History Month, Women in STEM Share Their Journeys

Bioengineering, Chemical & Petroleum, Civil & Environmental, Industrial, MEMS, Diversity

PITTSBURGH (March 18, 2021) — The path for women in STEM fields has historically been fraught with obstacles that their male counterparts may not have had to face. The path is a bit clearer today thanks to the women who walked it before: women like Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and environmentalist; Katherine Johnson, the space scientist who made the Apollo 11 flight possible; and Edith Clarke, the first professionally employed female electrical engineer in the U.S. On Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in celebration of Women’s History Month, a panel of women from the Swanson School of Engineering will discuss their own paths to success as women in STEM and higher education. The six faculty and staff members will discuss their journeys and lessons learned while building their fruitful careers. The panel, “My Journey, My Story: The Path to Success for Women in STEM and Higher Education,” is presented by the Swanson School of Engineering Office of Diversity. The discussion is open to all members of the Swanson School. You can find more information and RSVP here. PANELISTS: Xinyan Tracy Cui, Professor of Bioengineering Tracy Cui runs NTE Lab, where they investigate and develop tools that interface with the nervous system for neuroscience research or clinical diagnosis and therapies. One major thrust of the lab research is to understand and modulate neural tissue interactions with smart materials and biosensors—an effort that can be applied to several fields of research, including neural electrode/tissue interface, neural tissue engineering, implantable biosensors and drug delivery. The NTE Lab also designs advanced functional biomaterials and electrode devices that will intimately integrate with the host neural tissue. They simultaneously develop rigorous methods to comprehensively and accurately evaluate these novel materials and devices. Related news: $2.37M NIH Award to Deliver Improved Neural Recording Technology Katherinetarget="_blank" Hornbostel, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science On the way to renewable energy, there will still be a need for traditional power plants, like natural gas and coal, to keep the electrical grid stable during the transition. Katherine Hornbostel’s research focuses primarily on making those traditional energy sources cleaner through carbon capture technology. Her research group investigates materials for post-combustion carbon capture and direct air capture. Another project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program will model a novel plant that can capture more carbon dioxide from the air than it produces, making it carbon-negative. Related news: New Research Led by Pitt Analyzes Modeling Techniques for Carbon Capture Technology Gena Kovalcik, Co-Director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation The Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation (MCSI) focuses on sustainability initiatives and practices through the development and integration of curriculum, groundbreaking research, community outreach and innovation. Gena Kovalcik has led MCSI since 2003, when she joined as Codirector of Administration and External Relations. Kovalcik was also recently selected as Strategic Advisor to the Dean of the Swanson School of Engineering. In this new position, Gena will play an important role in helping to formalize and lead development of the Swanson School’s strategic processes and operationalizing its strategy across all units. In addition to her work at Pitt, Kovalcik serves as a member of the Allegheny County Green Action Team, which provides high-level, strategic input to Allegheny County officials to better support regional sustainability. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Green Innovators. Related news: https://www.engineering.pitt.edu/MCSI/News/ Carla Ng, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering There are tens of thousands of industrial chemicals currently in commerce—the majority of which were not carefully evaluated to understand their toxicity, bioaccumulation potential, or persistence. As researchers continue to discover environmental contaminants, Carla Ng’s lab works to effectively screen these potentially dangerous substances. Ng’s group works at the intersection of biology and chemistry to understand and predict the fate of chemicals in the environment. They build and validate models for legacy and emerging chemicals at multiple scales, from molecules to organisms to global systems. Recent news: Mapping PFAS Contamination in Packaged Food Cheryl Paul, Director of Engineering Student Services and Graduate Student Ombudsperson In her dual role assisting undergraduates and as the school’s graduate Ombudsperson, Cheryl Paul provides support to engineering students as they navigate academic and life challenges. Additionally, Paul extensively consults with staff, faculty, and parents in situations where extra assistance is required. As a member of Pitt’s Campus Crisis Support Team, the Care & Resource Support group, & the LGBTQI+ Task Force, she is invested in leading the effort to improve student’s educational experiences with care & compassion. Paul’s work has been widely recognized by her peers. In 2013, she received the Chancellor’s Award for Staff Excellence for her work assisting student organizations.To honor this work, Pitt’s Fraternity and Sorority Life recently named the Cheryl Paul Professional Academic Mentor of the Year Award after her. Anne Robertson, William Kepler Whiteford Endowed Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Anne Robertson joined the University of Pittsburgh in 1995, where she was the first female faculty member in Mechanical Engineering. Her research is focused on understanding the relationship between biological structure and mechanical function of soft tissues with a particular focus on vascular tissues. She directs a multi-institution program on cerebral aneurysms that is supported by the NIH and served a four-year term as a standing member of the Neuroscience and Ophthalmic Imaging Technologies (NOIT) Study Section of the NIH. Robertson is founding Director of the Center for Faculty Excellence in the Swanson School of Engineering at Pitt, which takes the lead in developing and implementing programs to enhance the effectiveness of junior faculty in building outstanding academic careers. She was recently promoted to Associate Dean of Faculty Development so that she can expand this work to include recently promoted Associate Professors. Dr. Robertson is a strong supporter of diversity-related initiatives and in 2007, she received the Robert O. Agbede Faculty Award for Diversity in the Swanson School. Related news: Pitt and Mayo Clinic Discover New, Immediate Phase of Blood Vessel Restructuring After Aneurysm
Maggie Pavlick

Feb

Feb
26
2021

Pitt IRISE Consortium Welcomes CAWP as Newest Member

Civil & Environmental

PITTSBURGH (Feb. 26, 2021) — The University of Pittsburgh is proud to announce that the Constructors Association of Western PA (CAWP) is the sixth and newest member to join the Impactful Resilient Infrastructure Science and Engineering (IRISE) Consortium. IRISE is a research consortium that is housed in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering. Its focus is on finding solutions for more durable, longer lasting transportation infrastructure that will avoid the high cost and disruption caused by highway rehabilitation. The IRISE collaboration focuses on developing innovative, implementable solutions that meet the needs of its members. CAWP will join other regional public and private partners who represent both the public agencies that own and operate the infrastructure and the private firms that design and build it, including Allegheny County Department of Public Works, PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Golden Triangle Construction, and Michael Baker International. For over 85 years, the members of CAWP have worked together as an industry to tackle the important issues facing the heavy, highway and utility construction industry in Western Pennsylvania. “CAWP is pleased to be able to bring the perspective of the construction industry to the IRISE consortium,” said CAWP Executive Director Richard J. Barcaskey. “As a collaborative organization ourselves, we understand the benefits and power of working together to develop innovative solutions to critical problems.” Julie Vandenbossche, Ph.D., P.E., the Director of IRISE said, “We welcome CAWP as our newest member and are excited about expanding our ability to reach out to the actual builders to better ensure the tools and technology we develop can be applied in practice and produce increased construction efficiency and worker safety.”
Maggie Pavlick
Feb
18
2021

Building on a Fruitful Engagement

Civil & Environmental, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (Feb. 18, 2021) — In the middle of concrete streets and brick buildings in the neighborhood of Homewood, a greenhouse teems with activity. The Oasis Farm and Fishery produces fresh, local produce for residents and businesses in this community, which is considered a food desert — an area with limited access to fresh, affordable, good-quality foods like fruits and vegetables. Food deserts are a growing problem not only in Pittsburgh but throughout the U.S. In 2015, Pitt Hydroponics, a University of Pittsburgh student organization, partnered with the Oasis Project, an initiative of the Bible Center Church in Homewood, to produce locally grown, fresh produce for the community and provide instruction in urban farming. The urban micro-farm has produced food for Homewood neighbors as well as the Pitt Pantry. Now, the partnership finds itself at a critical moment of expansion. A new Year of Engagement Grant from the University of Pittsburgh will enable the Pitt Hydroponics Club and the Oasis Project to build its new greenhouse, complete with a microclimate that can produce food year-round, even through the cold months of the Pittsburgh winter. "The importance of this partnership is that the ideas and projects are co-created. It is another exciting step, on a long journey,” said Pitt Hydroponics advisor David Sanchez, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and assistant director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt. “And if we do it right, we will meet real needs in Homewood, inspire transformational solutions for Pittsburgh and beyond, and meet our educational mission for our students." The Magic of Hydroponics Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil; the roots instead hang in nutrient-dense water. The method enables plants to grow more quickly with less water, producing a better yield without the need for pesticide or fertilizer. With hydroponics, many plants can be grown in a small amount of space, making it well-suited for sustainable urban farming. The partnership between Pitt Hydroponics and the Oasis Project has already yielded positive results. The site currently consists of a direct current (DC) powered greenhouse that stores 1,750 gallons of reclaimed rainwater and has both aquaponic and hydroponic food production systems. The farm grows a variety of vegetables and fruits, from hearty greens and lettuce to tomatillos and hot peppers. Last year, it produced more than 500 pounds of food, much of which was used by the Everyday Cafe, a branch of the Bible Center Church. “Pitt Hydroponics is able to take requests directly from the cafe as to what they would like us to grow for their menu,” said Pitt Hydroponics President William Sauerland, a junior studying computer science. “Having the club’s work go right back into the community is an advantage of working in and with the Homewood community.” Though Pitt Hydroponics has strong ties to the Swanson School of Engineering, it is made up of students from across the University who meet regularly to brainstorm, design, build and test hydroponic growing systems. The group created the plan and received funding for the greenhouse. They also designed and built a microclimate in the building’s garage so that both the greenhouse and the garage are usable in the winter to grow crops. “Since beginning this collaboration, we have been able to accomplish a great deal in a very short time,” said Jerry Potts (BSME ’20), the former vice president of Pitt Hydroponics. “I am really proud of what we have done in so little time and I am really excited to see how the groups continue to expand, especially when there isn’t a pandemic getting in the way.” In addition to creating a warm microclimate that will lengthen the growing season, the new space will allow the partners to design and test innovative new systems. Once the new greenhouse is built, it will house Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydronic systems, with the capacity to grow around 400 plants. Cultivating Green Education The Oasis Farm and Fishery offers hands-on educational programming for Homewood residents and others about urban farming, the parts of the plant, the role of nutrients in the soil, and the plethora of beneficial bugs that help out around the farm. By partnering with the University of Pittsburgh, Oasis Farm and Fishery is “working to leverage our combined energy and expertise to help make Homewood a destination for Green workforce training and education, as well as a source for quality, locally grown produce,” said Tacumba Turner, farm manager for the Oasis Project. “Our farm is a space where undergraduate students can get exposure to real world application of the concepts and theories they learn about, and it enables them to to put those ideas and insights into use in ways that are meaningful and relevant to the community of Homewood.” The new greenhouse, funded by the $2,246 Year of Engagement Grant, will also enable more hands-on demonstrations for students who come to the farm to learn about hydroponics. “The best part of working with the community in Homewood is being able to have direct contact with the people we are helping. Pitt Hydroponics spends a lot of its efforts on community engagement at elementary schools in Homewood,” said Sauerland. “We do after-school programs teaching kids the basics of hydroponics and sustainable growing methods. It is fun to work with the elementary school kids and rewarding to be able to share what we learn as a club with them.” The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for the students to engage with the community, but the construction of the greenhouse—and all the work that follows—provides a safe and productive way to engage with and learn from the community of Homewood. The outdoor, socially distanced work will allow interaction and learning to continue, even as the pandemic stretches on. “The Oasis Project serves the people of Homewood in many ways, and the partnership with Pitt has brought resources, innovative thinking and best practice from research to our work,” said Cynthia Wallace, Executive Director of the Oasis Project and Executive Pastor at the Bible Center Church. “It also means that the Pitt students are not learning in isolation but understand that as knowledge grows, so does responsibility. The role of education is not just for the individual but is for the collective.”
Maggie Pavlick
Feb
3
2021

The Business of Bees

Civil & Environmental

PITTSBURGH (Feb. 3, 2021) — The economic value of insect pollinators was $34 billion in the U.S. in 2012, much higher than previously thought, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University. The team also found that areas that are economically most reliant on insect pollinators are the same areas where pollinator habitat and forage quality are poor. “Pollinators like bees play an extremely important role in agriculture,” explained senior author Vikas Khanna, Wellington C. Carl Faculty Fellow and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. “The insects that pollinate farmers’ crops underpin our ecosystem biodiversity and function, human nutrition, and even economic welfare.” But some of those busy little bees are headed for crisis—one-third of managed honey bee colonies die each winter in the U.S., and populations of many wild pollinator species are showing declines as well. Using publicly available price and production data and existing pollination field studies, the team determined economic dependence of U.S. crops on insect pollination services at the county level, as well as areas where the habitat for wild pollinators has been reduced. One key finding is that the economic value that is dependent on insect pollination totaled $34 billion in 2012, much higher than previously thought. The team looked at 2012 because it was the most recent year for which data were available. Related: Listen to a segment about this research on the NSF's radio show, The Discovery Files. “The value of insects as part of our economy is apparent when you look at the well-established connection between farming and beekeeping. Farmers sometimes will buy or rent bee colonies to help pollinate their crops when there aren’t enough wild bees in the area,” said Khanna. “We’ve found that some of the areas that are economically most reliant on insect pollinators are the same areas where pollinator habitat and forage quality are poor.” The researchers found that 20 percent of U.S. counties produce 80 percent of total economic value that can be attributed to wild and managed pollinators. Their findings will inform conservation efforts and ensure sustainable production of key crops. They also identified the key areas that produce economically and nutritionally valuable crops and are highly dependent on pollinators—areas that are at risk if wild pollinator populations continue to decline. By overlaying maps of predicted wild bee abundance, the researchers could identify areas where there was high economic dependence on pollinators but low predicted abundance of pollinators. The research suggests a need for farmers to mitigate the shrinking bee populations by providing a more suitable habitat for the insects to thrive. “Our study showcases the increasing importance of pollinators to supporting U.S. agricultural systems, particularly for the foods that are vital for healthy diets, like fruits, vegetables and nuts,” says Christina Grozinger, Publius Vergilius Maro Professor of Entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State. “This detailed map of pollination needs and pollinator deficits helps identify regions where resources could be provided to improve pollinator habitat, as well as other regions where local land use practices are supporting both agriculture and healthy pollinator populations. Those places could serve as models for sustainable agriculture and pollinator conservation practices.” The paper, “Economic Dependence and Vulnerability of United States Agricultural Sector on Insect-Mediated Pollination Service,” (DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.0c04786) was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Other authors on the paper include Alex Jordan, graduate student at Pitt, and Harland Patch, assistant research professor at Penn State. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Maggie Pavlick
Feb
2
2021

Mapping PFAS Contamination in Packaged Foods

Civil & Environmental

When grabbing a sweet, sticky bun from the grocery store for breakfast, one might rejoice in the fact that it cleanly slides out of the wrapper and onto a plate. While consumers may not think twice about why it is not sticking, researchers are trying to shed light on how this convenient packaging could potentially expose humans to toxic chemicals called PFAS. Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of man-made chemicals lauded for their nonstick and oil-repellent characteristics. While useful in the food industry, there is evidence that exposure to these persistent chemicals may lead to adverse outcomes in human health. Supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the University of Pittsburgh’s Carla Ng will lead a project that aims to be the first systematic study of the kinds and amount of PFAS that are present in imported and domestic food packaging. She and her collaborators from Indiana University and the USDA – Agricultural Research Service (ARS) will create a database that they hope will help guide better policy around the use of PFAS in the food industry. “Humans are exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways, but depending on where you live, food is likely your major source,” said Ng, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. “There are many different types of PFAS, and we don’t have enough information on where they are used, in what quantities, and whether they’re toxic, so we will use this award to study those details.” According to the FDA, there are nearly 5,000 different types of PFAS. To add to the complexity of this issue, other countries have adopted different approaches to regulating PFAS and its many varieties. For example, PFOA and PFOS have been phased out in the United States, but they are still widely produced in China. While they do not send these specific chemicals to the U.S., there may be residual chemicals that are transferred during production. “Because of these uncertainties, we want to understand how all the different origins of packaging will impact which PFAS actually wind up in the consumer product,” said Ng. The research team will inspect national supermarket chains and local international food stores to get an idea of the type and geographic origin of food packaging. They will then collect a representative sample of products and analyze the packaging for the presence of PFAS. “We will use extraction and migration assays to evaluate the packaging,” explained Ng. “Extraction would represent an extreme case where we use harsh chemicals to gather a sample. Alternatively, the migration assays use simulants which represent different types of food – such as fatty, acidic, or salty. It will show, under normal conditions, how much PFAS transferred from packaging to food.” ARS researcher Yelena Sapozhnikova will contribute to this work by identifying PFAS chemicals migrating from food packaging materials with non-targeted, high-resolution mass spectrometry. Sapozhnikova's interest in this research is a direct result from her previous work on identification of chemicals from food contact materials. Once the PFAS structures are identified, they will go to Amina Salamova, associate scientist at IU’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, whose team will quantify how much of each structure is in the sample. “We’re excited to conduct research that has such big implications for consumer safety,” Salamova said. “This research will help us understand a lot more about a group of chemicals that are widely used but not well understood.” From there, the analyzed extracts and simulants will go to Pitt to be tested for toxicity. Ng’s lab specializes in molecular modeling that can initially screen the samples before evaluating them in zebrafish for further validation. The results of the project will reveal whether the chemicals present in the packaging are toxic and if the concentration is high enough to contaminate your food. The researchers hope that this work will inform regulators, provide a risk assessment tool, and potentially reveal hot spots for PFAS exposure in our food system. # # #

Jan

Jan
27
2021

Ph.D. position: data science and modeling in water

All SSoE News, Civil & Environmental, Open Positions

We have a fully funded PhD opportunity in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA USA.  Please see the attachment for details of the project. We look forward to receiving strong applications from qualified applicants.

xuliang@pitt.edu