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Environmental Factor

September 2011

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Superfund awards support early-career researchers

By Anne Johnson
September 2011

Celys Irizarry

Graduate student Celys Irizarry (Photo courtesy of Celys Irizarry)

Alvine Mehinto, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral fellow Alvine Mehinto (Photo courtesy of Alvine Mehinto)

Xianai Wu, Ph.D

Postdoctoral fellow Xianai Wu (Photo courtesy of Xianai Wu)

Kirby Donnelly, Ph.D.

Donnelly was the associate director for the NIEHS-funded Superfund Research Program at Texas A&M University (TAMU). (Photo courtesy of Melany Borsack and TAMU Health Science Center)

Three budding environmental health researchers are expanding their scientific horizons thanks to a new award established by the Superfund Research Program (SRP). The KC Donnelly Externship Award Supplement(, which honors the memory of longtime SRP grantee and celebrated environmental health researcher Kirby Donnelly, Ph.D., supports SRP trainees pursuing translational and transdisiplinary opportunities.

Named as winners Aug. 3, Xianai Wu, Ph.D., Alvine Mehinto, Ph.D., and Celys Irizarry are the first recipients of the externship award, which will be issued annually. By supporting talented graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, the award honors Donnelly's dedication to fostering the next generation of environmental health scientists.

“This is a very exciting opportunity for SRP trainees, and we hope that many of them will take advantage of this chance to expand their training experience while working at their SRP center,” said NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., who coordinates the award program. “As part of the SRP Strategic Plan, the SRP is focusing on the trainees, because they are the future of environmental health and engineering research.”

The externship provides funding for supplies, travel, and housing costs for up to three months, not to exceed $10,000 per recipient, for SRP trainees to pursue opportunities at other SRP centers, government laboratories, and state, local, or tribal agencies.

Promoting translational and transdisciplinary research

The externship awards encourage SRP trainees to explore how their areas of research can be enhanced by translational or transdisciplinary opportunities and experiences. This year's recipients represent a diverse array of environmental health perspectives:

  • Celys Irizarry is a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, üez campus, through the Northeastern Superfund Research Program. For her externship, Irizarry will work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Caribbean Environmental Protection Division and the Puerto Rico Department of Health to collect water-quality data for chemicals that may be associated with preterm birth. Her findings will be used to help the agencies improve their water-quality assessment models. “The KC Donnelly traineeship has provided me with not only the ability to expand my research, but the opportunity to further develop many skills and professional goals,” said Irizarry. “It also allows me to establish professional links in the government agencies.”
  • Alvine Mehinto, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida. For her externship, she will integrate omics data from her previous experiments on largemouth bass with new research at the University of California, Berkeley on yeast models to study various contaminants' pathways of toxicity. “This externship is an amazing opportunity to bring new dimensions to my studies and use novel computational methods to identify mechanisms of toxicity in living organisms exposed to a variety of Superfund chemicals,” said Mehinto.
  • Xianai Wu, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iowa, where her research focuses on PCBs and their metabolites. For her externship, she will conduct animal studies at the University of California, Davis to learn metabolomic techniques that are not used in her current laboratory. “The externship award allows me to obtain hands-on training with state-of-the-art metabolomic techniques, which will benefit me both as an Iowa Superfund Research Program laboratory researcher and future regulatory toxicologist,” said Wu. “The findings from my experiments will assist with the discovery of biomarkers of PCB 126 exposure that can be used in human biomonitoring studies, and guide the design of laboratory and, ultimately, human studies aimed at dietary interventions to prevent PCB-induced diseases.”

Externship award recipients will present their research at the SRP annual meeting Oct. 24-26 in Lexington, Ky. The next award application deadline is March 21, 2012. For more information, visit

(Anne Johnson is on the staff of MDB, a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program and Worker Education and Training Program.)

Honoring a legacy

Donnelly served as department head of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M University, before he passed away on July 1, 2009 (see story( During his 30-year career, Donnelly examined environmental exposure and genotoxicity of complex chemical mixtures around the globe, conducting studies in Eastern Europe, China, and across the United States. His scientific contributions and outreach efforts changed many people's perceptions of environmental health problems.

In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Donnelly was a dedicated mentor to his students and postdoctoral researchers. He is remembered for his emphasis on enhancing the impact of environmental health research through transdisciplinary partnerships, translational research, and outreach activities. A gifted leader, Donnelly initiated the SRP Bioassay Network to bring together researchers from six SRP Centers and scientists from EPA Regions and Headquarters. He also championed many community outreach and education activities to improve the health of people exposed to environmental contaminants.

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