University of Kentucky graduate student Angela Gutierrez is the 20th recipient of the Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award, which honors students who exemplify the qualities of scientific excellence. The award annually recognizes one outstanding graduate student or postdoctoral researcher in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Superfund Research Program (SRP).
Gutierrez, who is pursuing her doctorate in chemical engineering in the UK Graduate School, was recognized for her innovative research focused on developing magnetic nanoparticles coated with plant-derived polymers, called polyphenols, to capture and remove polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from water.
"UK’s Superfund Research Program has provided me with diverse academic training as a scientist. It has fostered my passion in helping younger generations maintain their scientific curiosity and allowed me to grow as an academic researcher," Gutierrez says.
“There is a growing need for environmentally friendly technologies for water and wastewater treatment that can simultaneously meet global water demands and be used in low-resource settings.
“Having been born and raised in Colombia, a developing country, this research has personal significance for me. This remediation technology maintains low production costs and is reusable, allowing it to be easily applied in current Superfund sites, as well as in low-resource developing countries,” she states.
The technology developed by Gutierrez and colleagues uses environmentally friendly and reusable nanomaterials that can selectively bind PCBs from contaminated water sources. The platform combines magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles, which are synthesized in the laboratory, with naturally occurring polyphenols found in a variety of plants, such as green tea and berries. These polyphenols can easily bind to organic contaminants like PCBs, removing them from the water. Together this platform costs significantly less than traditional remediation methods and maximizes the reusable lifecycle of the materials. The technology can be applied with no extensive training or excessive added cost.
“Angela is keenly interested in making sure the developments in the lab match stakeholders’ needs and can be applied not only in Kentucky, but around the world,” says Bernhard Hennig, director of UK’s SRP Center. “She is also a true role model for her peers. She consistently demonstrates a passion for helping the next generation of scientific researchers and is dedicated to sharing her knowledge with everyone.”
Gutierrez has trained for the last five years under UK SRC researchers J. Zach Hilt and Thomas Dziubla, working on Project #4: Biomimetic Magnetic Nanocomposites as a Platform Technology for the Capture and Sensing of PCBs. She also serves as the trainee leader for non-biomedical projects in the UK SRC.
Outside of the lab, Gutierrez is actively involved in scientific communication and outreach. In addition to mentoring undergraduate students in the lab, she has been involved in several programs working with children to promote interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She strives to be a positive role model for the future generation, particularly for young women of Hispanic descent, who are under-represented in STEM fields.
“I hope to help form the next generation of researchers that can tackle the challenges of hazardous waste management through interdisciplinary hands-on research and close relationships with local and national stakeholders,” Gutierrez says.
Gutierrez plans to continue her work in environmental remediation as an academic researcher and hopes to follow in Wetterhahn’s footsteps by using holistic approaches to public health needs.
“I have always been interested in finding ways to make engineering and scientific discoveries more accessible to the wider public,” Gutierrez says. “My long-term goal is to translate my learning experience as a basic researcher to meet stakeholder needs in developing countries and to help provide low-cost and environmentally friendly water treatment facilities that positively impact our communities.”