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Arnold School of Public Health

ENHS and CENR’s Mohammed Baalousha joins Faculty Early Career Awardees

March 21, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, 

Mohammed Baalousha, an Assistant Professor at the Center for Environmental NanoScience & Risk (CENR) in the Arnold School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences (ENHS), has been awarded the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award—receiving $510,000 to support his research and education activities over a five-year period within the context of his professorship at the University of South Carolina. With approximately 2,500 proposals submitted annually, CAREER is highly competitive and is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards program for junior faculty. Awardees like Baalousha exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of research and education—activities that build a solid foundation for a lifetime of leadership in these areas.

The review panels seek compelling and novel research ideas, through which the proposed activities have the potential to have a broader impact and transform the way others will view this particular research problem in the future. They are also looking for innovative but feasible education plans that will enhance the understanding of the researcher’s area of expertise among graduate, undergraduate, and K-12 students along with the broader community.

Baalousha exceeded the panel’s selection criteria with his proposal to advance research and education related to engineered nanoparticles, which are currently considered an emerging environmental contaminant. Their increased production and use in consumer products results in their release to the environment—notably accumulating in aquatic ecosystems—and some of them have been shown to be toxic. “Particles in the nanoscale range have always been around us in nature,” says Thomas Chandler, an ecotoxicologist and co-PI on another of Baalousha’s NSF grants, as well as dean of the Arnold School. “What’s different now is the release to nature of uniquely engineered man-made nanoparticles of unknown health and environmental consequences. Dr. Baalousha, as an environmental chemist and engineer working in public health, is on the cutting edge of detecting and measuring these tiny materials in complex environmental media. That is precisely why he won this very prestigious CAREER award.”

“Unfortunately, at present we are unable to adequately assess the risks related to nanotechnology for humans or the environment because it is difficult to differentiate most engineered nanoparticles from those that occur naturally, making it difficult to quantify engineered nanoparticle exposure concentrations and properties upon release,” explains Baalousha. “This CAREER award will allow me to develop novel methods that differentiate engineered from natural nanoparticles and measure their concentrations and properties in the natural environment.”

The outcomes of his proposed research will impact other disciplines, such as aquatic toxicology and environmental nanoscience and engineering. By learning more about the properties of engineered nanoparticles in surface waters, scientists can more reliably conduct hazard and risk assessments by focusing on the form of engineered nanoparticles after their transformations in the environment. The findings of this research will also inform federal agencies (e.g., Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology) and private industry on nanoparticle regulation and best safety practices.

“The scientific challenge which Dr. Baalousha will address with this award is one of the key bottlenecks in this area of science and will have huge implications for developing an effective and sustainable nanotechnology industry,” says SmartState Endowed Chair and CENR Director Jamie Lead. “It is to Dr. Baalousha’s great credit that he has taken on this challenge.”

For the education and service components of this award, Baalousha will develop undergraduate and graduate courses in environmental nanoscience, contribute to textbooks, enhance laboratory and field experiences for students in high school and beyond, increase awareness of nanotechnology among high school students, and train students on the nuances of grant proposals, development and writing. He will also organize a symposium to convene a discussion among high school students and international researchers about nanotechnology.

“Dr. Baalousha’s knowledge of nanomaterials risk, coupled with his knowledge of ecology and public health, provides a novel area of expertise that is already helping fill a significant niche needed to help us better protect natural resources, and ecosystem health as well as public health and enhance environmental risk assessment,” says ENHS Chair Geoffrey Scott. “This CAREER award will be instrumental in shaping the future of Dr. Baalousha’s research career by generating valuable knowledge that can propel his already well-established academic career and will enhance the opportunities for his graduate students as he trains the next generation of environmental ecotoxicoloigsts.”

Baalousha earned his undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from the Islamic University of Gaza in Palestine (2001). He then moved to France where he earned a Master’s in Applied Mechanics (2002) and a Ph.D. in Environmental Biogeochemistry at the University of Bordeaux (2006). From 2006 to 2013, he held a variety of postdoctoral research roles in the area of environmental nanoscience and risk at the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom) before joining the Arnold School in 2014.