Environmental Scientist Secures Highly Competitive NSF Award

March 27, 2007 -- Todd Scanlon, assistant professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences, recently acquired a $449,800 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant for his novel environmental research.

The five-year, CAREER award is one of the most prestigious grants available to junior faculty members in the sciences and engineering.  The NSF funding is granted through a competitive application process to faculty members who have demonstrated great promise early in their careers. 

Scanlon plans to use the CAREER grant to further important environmental research in two distinct areas of the Commonwealth.  The first project will examine nitrous oxide emissions on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the second will investigate mercury transformation in Shenandoah National Park.

Scanlon’s study of nitrous oxide emissions is a part of the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) administered by U.Va.  Nitrous oxide is a major greenhouse gas that breaks down the ozone layer and contributes to global warming.  It is naturally emitted by soil and bodies of water, but its levels are vastly compounded by agricultural fertilizers that are laden with nitrogen.  Scanlon will measure levels of nitrous oxide in the air near streams off the Eastern Shore with a tunable diode laser — an  instrument capable of quantifying trace levels of gas at high frequencies — the latest technology in the field.  This research will help determine “hot spots” of nitrous oxide emissions.

Scanlon’s mercury research will examine the element’s levels in both the air and water at Shenandoah National Park (SNP).  Scanlon notes that mercury accumulates in the environment as a result of the emissions of coal-burning power plants.  Mercury has been found in fish, spurring public health warnings related to human fish consumption because even in low levels, mercury can be toxic to humans and wildlife.  Further research is needed to understand why some areas have high concentrations of mercury while other, adjacent areas have low amounts.  A preliminary analysis in SNP shows low concentrations in water and fish, but this more thorough study will focus on areas where mercury would be the highest—wetlands.  Scanlon hopes to attain a better understanding of how mercury is transported and transformed through his research.  His study is more comprehensive in scope than those that have occurred in the past.  “Simultaneously measuring fluxes of mercury through both stream ecosystems and the atmosphere is unique,” says Scanlon. 

The NSF CAREER program places an emphasis on the integration of research and teaching.  To fulfill this educational component, Scanlon will partner with the Schoolyard LTER program, which enlists the participation of high school students in the Eastern Shore research.  In addition, he will train U.Va. graduate students in the latest environmental field methods.

Scanlon credits his experience as a University Teaching Fellow (UTF) with helping him to fuse the way he thinks about research and teaching — a critical component in writing a winning CAREER proposal. The UTF program is based at U.Va.’s Teaching Resource Center and it exists to help outstanding junior faculty members in building their teaching expertise while simultaneously pursuing their formidable research goals.

Written by Melissa Maki, research communications coordinator for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.