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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

September 2021

Scientific art competition showcases trainees’ research, imagination

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program hosted the competition, highlighting early-career scientists’ projects during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced university laboratories to shut down or go remote, the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) created an opportunity for trainees to celebrate their research efforts and the stories behind them. Led by SRP Health Scientist Administrator Danielle Carlin, Ph.D., SRP hosted a scientific art competition for trainees.

top part of face of Apollo sculpture, numbers, and geometric shapes “Sometimes, science and art meet in the middle,” said Carlin. “Images and photos can convey information in a way that data tables and research publications cannot.” (Photo courtesy of ded pixto / Shutterstock.com)

The trainees — all of whom hail from SRP centers across the U.S. — submitted entries in one of the following four categories:

  • Field experiments.
  • Laboratory experiments.
  • An image of something seen while staying safe.
  • Artwork created while social distancing.

Entries also included explanations of the science behind the art. The images will be displayed at the SRP annual meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, Dec. 15-17.

Field experiments and rainbows

This category garnered the most submissions, and trainees showed off their innovative approaches to safely conducting field experiments and community engagement work.

Alma Anides Morales, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, won first place. She studies microbial soil contamination and potential health risks due to historic sewage overflows in Arizona.

Anides Morales looks at transborder sewage overflows on the side of a road Anides Morales and other University of Arizona researchers visited the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2019 to document location and flows of transborder sewage overflows. (Photo courtesy of the trainee’s mentor, Monica Ramirez-Andreotta)
  • Jennifer Toyoda, a doctoral candidate from the University of Louisville, won second place. She studies the biological mechanisms of chromium-induced lung cancer.
  • Third place was a tie between doctoral students Ezazul Haque, from the University of Iowa, and MaKayla Foster, from North Carolina State University (NCSU). Haque examines the health effects of exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls and metals such as lead and arsenic. Foster studies the effects of long-term exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
  • Honorable mentions went to JoRee LaFrance, from the University of Arizona, and Irene Hu, Ph.D., from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. LaFrance examines drinking water pollution on Tribal lands, and Hu studies the flux of contaminants between sediments and water.

A beautiful transformation

“On occasion, scientific images may have qualities that transform them into objects of beauty and art,” said Carlin.

Michelle Kossack, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow from Brown University, won first place in the laboratory experiments category for her three-dimensional image of a zebrafish ovary after toxicant exposure.

zebrafish ovary showing toxicant exposure “The zebrafish ovary can be compromised following toxicant exposure, which can lead to infertility,” said Kossack. (Image courtesy of Michelle Kossack)
  • Second place went to Kamila Murawska-Wlodarczyk, a doctoral candidate from the University of Arizona. She studies interactions between plants and soil microorganisms to enhance remediation efforts at abandoned mining sites.
  • Sarangi Joseph, a doctoral student from NCSU, won third place. He studies how different sizes and shapes of granular activated carbon can be used to remove PFAS from water.
  • Honorable mention went to Asuka Orr, from Texas A&M University, and Juliana Huizenga, from Oregon State University. Orr studies how clays can bind to certain contaminants and reduce human exposure. Huizenga examines remediation technologies that minimize formation of hazardous breakdown products associated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Nature and inspiration

During the pandemic, when many people found themselves spending more time at home, several trainees rediscovered their passion for art and nature.

“I am a nature lover as well as a junior photographer,” said Prasadi Adhihetty, a doctoral student at the University of Louisville. She won first place in the image seen while staying safe category, for a picture she took of a bumblebee in her garden. Adhihetty aims to help develop a sensor that measures volatile organic compounds in air.

a bee sitting on a purple passionflower “To me, this was the best nature picture I took last year,” said Adhihetty. (Photo courtesy of Prasadi Adhihetty)
  • Jamie Young, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow from the University of Louisville, won second place. Young studies how environmental exposures and factors such as diet are involved in the development of disease.
  • Athena Nghiem, a doctoral candidate from Columbia University, won third place. She works to study the fate and transport of arsenic in groundwater.

Art and the personal

In the artwork category, Sam Hall, a doctoral student from Duke University, won first place. Hall examines PFAS concentration in dust, water, and the placenta.

Second place went to Maggie Li, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, for a still of herself dancing. She uses geospatial methodologies to evaluate the community health effects of air pollution and environmental disasters, from an environmental justice perspective.

In this lab we believe poster on a lab window “During the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2021, our lab collaborated virtually to create a lab poster expressing some of our collective beliefs,” said Hall. (Photo courtesy of Sam Hall)

Submissions were reviewed by staff in the NIEHS Extramural Research and Training Division. They weighed four criteria, including description of the image, overall impression of the art, visual impact of the piece, and originality. See the rest of the winning submissions in the slideshow below.

(Mali Velasco is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.)


MaKayla Foster helps measure a baby alligator “Over their approximately 30-year life span, alligators can provide insight into how long-term exposure to PFAS may affect human health,” said Foster. (Photo courtesy of MaKayla Foster)
Blessings Daycare building “This daycare is situated directly adjacent to a Superfund cleanup site where soil is contaminated with toxic levels of lead and arsenic,” said Haque. (Photo courtesy of Ezazul Haque)
Irene Hu and Harry Hemond work in the Concord River Irene Hu, Ph.D., left, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology SRP researcher Harry Hemond, Ph.D., center, conduct field trials at the Concord River in Bedford, Massachusetts, in May 2021. (Photo courtesy of Irene Hu)
Heat map of a sample containing phenanthrene metabolites Heat map generated from a three-dimensional fluorescent scan of a sample containing a complex mixture of phenanthrene metabolites. (Image courtesy of Juliana Huizenga)
granular activated carbon Granular activated carbon is the most widely employed technology to adsorb and remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances from water. (Image courtesy of Sarangi Joseph)
JoRee LaFrance works in the Little Bighorn River JoRee LaFrance collected samples near the headwaters of the Little Bighorn River in June 2020 for her pilot study project. (Photo courtesy of JoRee LaFrance)
Maggie Li dances in a field “Although we all might be physically separated, we remained connected through our shared passion for dance, joyful movement, and artistry,” said Li, who participated in a virtual project with other students in her dance class. (Photo courtesy by Maggie Li)
Kamila Murawska-Wlodarczyk and Alicja Babst-Kostecka play a game together “If you cannot go to the lab, the lab has to come to you,” said Murawska-Wlodarczyk, left. “It is in this spirit that we set up a temporary growth chamber in our living room that hosted 230 experimental plants.” Also shown is Alicja Babst-Kostecka, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Kamila Murawska-Wlodarczyk)
beach in western Australia “This was taken in Western Australia in late February 2020,” said Nghiem. “I had just arrived to start diving into reactive transport modeling of arsenic release.” (Photo courtesy of Athena Nghiem)
molecular image of calcium montmorillonite clay binding to aflatoxin-B1 This molecular image depicts calcium montmorillonite clay binding to aflatoxin-B1, a common contaminant in grains and animal feeds. (Image courtesy of Asuka Orr)
multiple images of a diving humpback whale A diving humpback whale barely disturbs the glass-like surface of the Gulf of Maine. At the University of Louisville, SRP-funded researchers study the effects of metal pollution on these important marine mammals. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Toyoda)
ruby-throated hummingbird on a branch “Hummingbirds are among my favorite feathered friends,” said Young. “This photo was taken from my back porch in Kentucky in the spring of 2020.” (Photo courtesy of Jamie Young)
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