January 15, 2021 | Erin Bluvas, firstname.lastname@example.org
Karlen Correa Vélez, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, won the Aleksandr Savchuk Foundation Award at the 2020 International Symposium on Human Health and the Ocean in a Changing World. The International Coral Reef Initiative held the inaugural symposium in December, with more than 700 participants attending in the hybrid (i.e., virtual/onsite) format.
Correa Vélez won the Aleksandr Savchuk Foundation Award for her project, which involves treating municipal sewage for the emerging public health concern, Vibrio bacteria (i.e., flesh-eating bacteria that can cause infection and death and is increasing beyond typical levels in coastal waters). She presented her findings at the conference and won a 3,000 Euro stiped for the project’s use of innovative research and new techniques.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Correa Vélez came to UofSC to study Vibrio bacteria.
“I am from an island in the Caribbean; by default, we love the marine environment,” she says. “At the same time, I like to search for different ways to help others or contribute to a better world. So, the Vibrio bacteria was a perfect match for my research.”
Correa Vélez began her studies with a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences from the University of Puerto Rico in her hometown of Ponce. She then completed a Master of Science in Biology from the flagship university’s Mayagüez campus, where she examined the detection and microbiological and molecular characterization of Vibrio bacteria in clams and oysters.
“I always knew that I want to continue my research in Vibrio, so I was looking for a multidisciplinary program that combined all my interests: microbiology, genetics, environmental sciences, and public health,” says Correa Vélez, whose husband was also applying to doctoral programs in marine sciences and found his match at UofSC as well. “The Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences program fit all my requirements, and I have met many researchers who have taught me a completely different view of the ocean.”
One of those researchers is associate professor Sean Norman, whose lab aims to understand the role of microorganisms in ecosystem and public health and is currently monitoring community coronavirus levels by testing samples from wastewater treatment plants. Norman also leads the Vibrio-focused Environmental Microbiology Project of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-funded ($5.7 million) Oceans and Human Health Center on Climate Change Interactions, which is directed by environmental health sciences professor and chair Geoff Scott.
“During these years in Dr. Norman’s laboratory, I’ve learned a lot, but the most important thing is not being afraid of the hard work because the results will be better than expected,” Correa Vélez says. “He values diversity of perspective and always made us think forward and see the big picture.”
The Norman J. Arnold Doctoral Fellow’s own big picture includes continuing her career in academia and her research on Vibrio bacteria. “My long-term goal is to provide useful data to prevent the public health risks associated with these pathogens in this changing world,” she says.