Call receives prestigious CAREER Award

Dr. Douglas Call, an assistant professor in CCEE, received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development award, known as the CAREER Award. The five-year NSF grant will support his project which is entitled “Leveraging the multifunctional redox properties of pyrogenic materials to enable biological transformations of aqueous organic contaminants.”

The overall goal of Call’s CAREER project is to protect human and environmental health by developing treatment technologies that more completely degrade toxic organic pollutants in a cost-effective manner. Call’s primary focus will be on degrading chlorinated solvents, a broad class of chemicals used in everyday products such as paints, pesticides, and cleaning solutions. Conventional microbial methods of degrading these and other organic pollutants involve searching for the right kind of microbe with the right kind of machinery (i.e. enzymes) that can act on the pollutant. This sometimes lengthy process does not always work in practice, so this research explores a completely different approach.

Douglas Call

Call will leverage a unique group of bacteria that are highly abundant in the environments where the pollutants are found including water, wastewater, and soils. These bacteria, from the genus Geobacter, can “breathe” by transferring electrons into pyrogenic materials, including biochar and activated carbon. Organic pollutants that attach to the surface of these materials can pick up those electrons, react, and transform into less harmful compounds. In essence, these materials provide a specialized conduit between Geobacter and pollutants, enabling targeted destruction of pollutants by customizing the material properties, rather than searching for new microorganisms with new enzymes.

The scanning electron microscope (SEM) image on the left shows the surface of a new, unused activated carbon particle. The SEM image on the right shows the same activated carbon after the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens (small, rod-shaped cells) has colonized the surface and “breathed” into the material.

Call will combine the tools of electrochemistry, microscopy, spectroscopy, and molecular biology to address knowledge gaps in our understanding of fundamental processes at microbial-material-pollutant interfaces. His goal is to apply these materials to degrade organic pollutants in applications including drinking water, stormwater, and bioremediation systems.

“Once we have a fundamental understanding of how pollutants degrade through this hybrid microbial-material process, our goal is to then customize the material properties to transform specific pollutants.”        Douglas Call

Call will also develop education and outreach activities to reach a broad student and teacher audience. One of his overarching goals is to increase interest and excitement about the microbial world, particularly the many beneficial environmental services that microorganisms provide to society. In partnership with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, he will create initiatives aimed at K -12 biology teachers to help them learn advanced microscopy techniques, and create experiments designed to introduce their students to environmental microbiology. Collaboration with the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation will leverage these activities to reach hundreds of K-12 teachers and students through existing school partnerships with the annual NC Science Teachers Association Conference. Call will also pilot a multi-level mentoring program for underrepresented high school students at the NC School of Science and Mathematics to provide research experiences to help students pursue careers in STEM. Finally, a new undergraduate-level lab on pollutant transformations mediated by hybrid microbial-material processes will be developed at NCSU.

Every year the NSF receives about 50,000 research proposals from scientists and engineers in almost every discipline. Of those submitted, only about 12,000 will be selected for funding. Funding from the federal agency, which was establish in 1950 to keep the United States at the leading edge of discovery, is highly selective and potentially career-changing. This brings our CCEE departmental total of CAREER Award winners to 15.