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Call receives NSF CAREER Award

Early morning sun cuts across the Memorial Belltower and Fall colors.

Dr. Doug CallDr. Douglas Call, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University, has received a Faculty Early Career Development award, also known as the CAREER Award, from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award is one of the highest honors given by NSF to young faculty members in science and engineering.

NSF will provide $500,000 in funding over five years to support his project, “Leveraging the multifunctional redox properties of pyrogenic materials to enable biological transformations of aqueous organic contaminants.”

The overall goal of Call’s CAREER project is to protect human and environmental health by developing treatment technologies that more completely degrade toxic organic pollutants in a cost-effective manner. Call’s primary focus will be on degrading chlorinated solvents, a broad class of chemicals used in everyday products such as paints, pesticides, and cleaning solutions. Conventional microbial methods of degrading these and other organic pollutants involve searching for the right kind of microbe with the right kind of machinery (i.e. enzymes) that can act on the pollutant. This sometimes-lengthy process does not always work in practice, so this research explores a completely different approach.

Call will leverage a unique group of bacteria that are highly abundant in the environments where the pollutants are found including water, wastewater and soils. These bacteria, from the genus Geobacter, can “breathe” by transferring electrons into pyrogenic materials, including biochar and activated carbon. Organic pollutants that attach to the surface of these materials can pick up those electrons, react, and transform into less harmful compounds. In essence, these materials provide a specialized conduit between Geobacter and pollutants, enabling targeted destruction of pollutants by customizing the material properties, rather than searching for new microorganisms with new enzymes.

He obtained a B.S. in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia in 2003 and a second B.S. in civil engineering from Virginia Tech in 2005. He received both his M.S. and Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Penn State University in 2008 and 2011, respectively.