2021 Hack Graduate Award recipients take on water issues from bacterial gels to plant diversity in arid climates

Morgan Kelly ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

The High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) has selected 11 Princeton University graduate students as 2021 recipients of the Mary and Randall Hack ’69 Graduate Awards for Water and the Environment. The awardees are Avery Agles, Tairan An, Shashank Anand, Jianshu Duan, Allison Hogikyan, Jacob Levine, Samuel Moore, Jenna Ott, Yeongjun Ryu, Daniel Shaw and Jiarong Wu. They represent the departments of chemical and biological engineering, geosciences, civil and environmental engineering, ecology and evolutionary biology, and mechanical and aerospace engineering, as well as the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and the School of Architecture.

Their research addresses topics such as the potential use of a bacterium species in the removal of a dangerous toxin from groundwater; the structure of the complex gel network microorganisms use to protect themselves; the effect of carbon emissions on the ocean’s uptake of atmospheric carbon; the conservation of soil’s ability to store carbon and restore ecosystems; the change a critical soil nutrient undergoes on its river journey from land to sea; the resilience of plant biodiversity in water-limited ecosystems to climate change; the role of marine biology in the production of sea-spray aerosols; the complex interaction between offshore wind-turbine wakes, the atmospheric boundary layer, and ocean surface waves; the role of ammonium in the ocean’s biological productivity; the influence of visible light on the degradation of water pollutants by iron-based organic compounds; and how a 19th-century Italian research station was the first to expose the influence of human activity on the environment.

Now in its 10th year, the Hack Award program has provided 61 Princeton Ph.D. candidates with up to $10,000 in research funding to explore water and water-related topics in various disciplines, including climate science, biology, engineering and environmental policy.

Brief descriptions of each recipient’s research proposal are below.

Avery Agles, Chemical and Biological Engineering

“Replica Exchange Molecular Dynamics to Uncover the Molecular Architecture of the Biofilm Matrix”

Adviser: Ian Bourg, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

Agles will explore the atomistic structure of the biofilm matrix, the complex gel network that microorganisms use to protect themselves. Biofilm structure is poorly understood due to limitations of the tools used to study them. Agles plans to create a simulated model of biofilm using replica exchange molecular dynamics (REMD), a molecular biology technique that captures the atomistic structure and dynamics of biomolecules that make up living systems. He plans to make his model available open-source so that people interested in microorganisms, including oceanographers, soil scientists, agriculturalists, physicians and biological engineers, can freely observe and study biofilms at the atomistic level.

Tairan An, Architecture

“The Hydrosocial Entanglement of the Zoological Station in Naples, ca. 1870s-1910s”

Adviser: Sylvia Lavin, Professor of Architecture

An will explore how the early decades of the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples, Italy, exposed the influence of human activity on the environment long before the modern concept of the Anthropocene. Founded in 1872, the station emerged as a world leader in marine science from its base in a seaport characterized by raw sewage, waterborne diseases and fractured ecosystems. An will argue that the station created a “hydrosocial” complex — in which water and society constantly interacted and remade each other — that helped set the tone for discovery in the 19th century in which science was driven less by the objective pursuit of knowledge and more by where it was carried out.

Shashank Anand, Civil and Environmental Engineering

“Landscape Dynamics as a Co-Evolution of Ecohydrological and Geomorphological Processes”

Adviser: Amilcare Porporato, the Thomas J. Wu ’94 Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

Anand will study the weathering patterns and spatial arrangement of soil clay in order to provide an effective framework for conserving soil ecosystem services such as carbon storage and mitigating ecosystem degeneration. His doctoral work is focused on describing the role of ecohydrological and geomorphological processes on runoff erosion and the emergence of landscape channelization patterns by developing a process-based model. He will expand on that work with a meta-analysis of the soil properties, spatial distribution of clay, and more on hillslopes from three distinct locations — the Southern Piedmont, Texas, and The Watershed Institute in New Jersey. Anand also is exploring the applications of his work to land-use policy through a 2021 HMEI-STEP graduate fellowship.

Jianshu Duan, Geosciences

“Temporal Interactions Between Dissolved Organic Matter and Minerals: Implications for Interfacial Structures and Mineral Surface Reactivity”

Adviser: Satish Myneni, Professor of Geosciences

Duan will conduct time-dependent experiments to better understand how dissolved organic matter (DOM) changes in chemistry as it is transported from land to sea by rivers. Crucial to nutrient systems, DOM is a rich source of carbon with significant influence on the global carbon cycle. Duan aims to provide molecular-scale experimental evidence that the interactions between DOM and various minerals protect it from breaking down, thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions. He will conduct short-term (minutes to hours) and long-term (days to weeks) analyses of DOM collected from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey.

Allison Hogikyan, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

“Response of Water and Carbon Cycles’ Coupling to Global Warming”

Adviser: Laure Resplandy, Assistant Professor of Geosciences and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

Hogikyan will explore how carbon emissions from human activity affect the ocean’s uptake of atmospheric carbon by influencing feedbacks between the global water and carbon cycles. Her project expands on her current experiments focusing on how climate-driven changes to air-sea freshwater exchange — precipitation and evaporation — alter the rate at which the ocean removes carbon from the atmosphere. Because less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in less intense atmospheric warming, Hogikyan’s work could help in understanding what sets the projected rate of warming for the 21st century.

Jacob Levine, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

“Maintenance of Biodiversity in Water-Limited Plant Communities”

Advisers: Jonathan Levine, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Stephen Pacala, Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Levine will validate and expand his mathematical model showing how water-limited ecosystems sustain plant biodiversity. His model on plant communities in Mediterranean climates such as California suggest that biodiversity is maintained when plants adhere to a tradeoff between their ability to grow rapidly in wet conditions and sustain growth under dry conditions. He plans to back up his model with fieldwork — as well as extend it to include more complex plant systems — with the aim of creating a predictive tool to project the resilience of plant species as climate change alters rainfall and the water cycle.

Samuel Moore, Chemical and Biological Engineering

“Impact of Light on Aqueous Pollutant Degradation by Iron-based Metal-Organic Frameworks”

Adviser: Michele Sarazen, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Moore will investigate how visible light affects the degradation of water pollutants by iron-based metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). Several iron-MOFs are water-stable compounds that have shown promise in efficiently breaking down chemical pollutants. Moore’s doctoral work has focused on synthesizing three iron-MOFs and studying their catalytic degradation of the model organic pollutant methylene blue and the plastics-derived contaminant bisphenol A (BPA) to elucidate material structure-function relationships. Moore will expand his work to study the catalytic degradation of these substances via iron-MOFs in the presence of visible light.

Jenna Ott, Chemical and Biological Engineering

“Six Feet Underground: Direct Visualization of P. putida in Degrading Groundwater Contaminants”

Adviser: Sujit Datta, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Ott will create a geologically realistic model to observe how the bacterium species Pseudomonas putida could be used to remove the dangerous toxin naphthalene from groundwater. P. putida can degrade naphthalene — a common chemical precursor — making the microbe an ideal candidate for bioremediation. Ott will develop a transparent model mimicking soil so she can study via fluorescence the bacterium’s cellular response to varying amounts of naphthalene and determine its potential for bioremediation.

Yeongjun Ryu, Geosciences

“Isotope-Ratio Measurement of Ammonium in Nutrient-Poor Ocean Waters”

Adviser: Daniel Sigman, Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences

Ryu will develop a portable device for extracting the essential ocean nutrient ammonium from seawater. The rapid consumption of ammonium by marine organisms makes the compound difficult to study, leaving a significant gap in our understanding of the ocean’s nitrogen cycle. Ryu plans to deploy his device in the Sargasso Sea in order to collect ammonium samples, analyze their isotope ratios, and shed light on a significant component of the ocean’s biological productivity.

Daniel Shaw, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

“Bursting-Bubble Aerosol Transport of Biological Material”

Adviser: Luc Deike, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

Shaw plans to study how marine biology contributes to the production of sea-spray aerosols by bursting bubbles. Sea-spray aerosols can transfer water, organic matter, pollutants, and pathogens from the sea surface to the atmosphere. Shaw’s project expands on his current research studying the transport mechanics and statistics of sea-spray aerosol production in relation to human health, climate models, and fluid dynamics.

Jiarong Wu, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

“Wind-Wave Modeling and Application to Offshore Wind Farm”

Adviser: Luc Deike, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

Wu hopes to help optimize offshore wind-energy production by developing a numerical simulation of the complex interaction between turbine wakes, the atmospheric boundary layer, and ocean surface waves. Turbines alter the atmospheric boundary layer that interacts with ocean surface waves in a coupled way, which in turn affects turbine efficiency and the local marine environment. Wu’s research will provide a physics-based, high-fidelity simulation of wind-wave interaction that can be used in a model being developed for an HMEI Climate and Energy Challenge project co-led by her adviser.