Archived Outdoors

WCU researchers making their mark

out frScientific work by professors and students at Western Carolina University is earning recognition and winning research money. The Cullowhee campus, already recognized for its outdoor opportunities, is making an impact on several environmental fronts. Here are three recent examples of that work.


Professor studies radioactive waste cleanup

Channa De Silva studies the tiny “nano” particles that play a role in big problems as he carries out his teaching and research.

For a lesson in the environmental sciences, the Western Carolina University assistant professor of chemistry takes students outdoors to collect tailpipe exhaust and measure the nitrous oxide levels in auto emissions. One of his laboratory activities involves a study of nanoparticles as small as one billionth of a meter for their potential beneficial use in bacteria-resistant bandages and medical supplies. 

His recent research, a computer-based project that won a WCU Faculty Research and Creative Activities Award of $5,000 in March, focuses on a monumental task at the molecular level – the cleanup of radioactive waste. 

“Nuclear energy is very efficient for electric power and also for use in medicine,” De Silva said. “Nuclear power plants generate nuclear waste. One of our great challenges is to develop novel technologies to remove radioactive waste from the power plants.”

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De Silva will spend the summer analyzing computer data generated through a yearlong collaboration with scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy. The project involved computerized simulations of molecules with a large number of atoms in a study of their physical properties and behaviors. The goal is to develop selective organic compounds, known as “extracting agents,” to find and grab radioactive uranium metals left in the wastewater at the plants so that they can be safely removed and disposed.

A native of Sri Lanka who joined the WCU faculty in 2010, De Silva began work on the project in May 2014 when he was selected for a Visiting Faculty Fellowship sponsored by the DOE’s Office of Science. The program offers opportunities for 50 faculty members from smaller universities to engage in research with some of the nation’s top scientists and engineers and to use instruments and supercomputers at national labs. De Silva spent two weeks in Richland, Washington, with scientists in the Pacific Northwest’s environmental molecular sciences lab.

“This was an opportunity for some meaningful research with the scientists and to bring some knowledge and skills back to work with students on similar projects. For me, it was like being a student again,” he said.

Winner of WCU’s 2014 Hunter Scholar Award, De Silva plans to co-author a paper on the research findings with Ping Yang, chief scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who worked with him at the Pacific Northwest lab in May. He also will make a presentation in Memphis, Tennessee, in November at the Southeast regional meeting of the American Chemical Society.

“It’s motivating for our students to see what these scientists are doing and to understand that what they learn in their classes has applications,” he said. “It helps them to know that we can all be part of a team where everyone works together to solve important problems.”


Shorelines program receives grant to conduct coastal workshops

Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines has begun a series of workshops in the Caribbean and Latin America aimed at coastal vulnerability.

The workshops are being funded by a grant from the National Park Service, which WCU has worked with for more than 10 years on a variety of projects. It was only natural that the PSDS was selected to conduct the workshops, said Rob Young, program director.

“The Department of Interior and the National Park Service are trying to communicate with some of their international partners, people who manage park lands in Central America, to work with them on some of the similar kinds of topics we’ve been working on with the National Park Service,” Young said. “Things like how will you protect your park’s natural resources and infrastructure from factors such as coastal storms, and hazards and climate change? As a part of their effort, we’ve been asked to participate in, and help organize, several workshops in the Caribbean and Central America.”

Shortly after receiving the grant in April, two members of PSDS, coastal research scientists Katie McDowell Peek and Blair Tormey, who is also a faculty member in the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources, went to Jamaica to conduct a five-day workshop. They shared two of the projects they’ve been involved with in the U.S. — a natural resource vulnerability assessment that was done on Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia, and a protocol they are currently working on that deals with climate change vulnerability of infrastructure within national parks. 

“They were extremely interested in this protocol we were creating for calculating vulnerability because they have quite a bit of vulnerability to coastal hazards in Jamaica, being an island nation,” Peek said. “They also have a lot of structures close to the ocean. They really thrive on coastal tourism.”

The workshop was held at Discovery Bay Marine Lab, while the team also visited Runaway Bay in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. While there are no immediate plans, Young said the team likely will conduct future workshops at additional locations in Jamaica, as well as other countries such as Panama.


WCU student awarded prestigious fellowship

Western Carolina University junior Marissa Taylor has received a prestigious EPA fellowship that includes a summer internship and pays for her final two years of college.

Only 34 of the fellowships are conferred by the EPA to undergraduate students across the nation.

“I had already been doing some work with the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility, so I was able to put together a research narrative,” Taylor said.

“I am provided with $22,000 to use for tuition, which equals $11,000 for each of my final two years here at WCU,” Taylor said. “There is also a $5,000 expense allowance, which I can use for things like laboratory supplies, equipment and travel to conferences. The final $23,000 is a stipend, which I use for my living expenses. The stipend also supports my living expenses over the summer.”

Taylor’s internship will take place in San Francisco, California, this summer.

“I will spend 12 weeks working on a project titled ‘Community Air Toxics,’” she said. “My project will focus on air pollution risk reduction in communities. Specifically, I will be working with near-road air pollution and wood and coal stoves, particularly with tribal communities.

“After graduation, my dream is to work with the Environmental Protection Agency. I also plan to earn a masters of public health degree. I am very interested in epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health and environmental justice.”

Her current project is a partnership between the laboratory at WCU and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Biology Department and focusing on mosquitoes related to LaCrosse encephalitis, a disease regularly found in residents of Western North Carolina. Taylor gave a work-in-progress talk about the project for WCU’s Undergraduate Expo along with her lab partner, Makensey Campbell. 

“As I go forward in my career at WCU, I plan to always be involved in undergraduate research,” Taylor said.

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