University of New Orleans chemistry professor Phoebe Zito has been awarded a 2020 Early-Career Research Fellowship by the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program.
Zito is one of only 20 scientists to earn the two-year fellowship, which is awarded to emerging scientific leaders who are prepared to work in environmental health, community health and resilience, and offshore energy system safety in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. coastal regions.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be selected for this award,” Zito said. “I’ve faced a lot of adversity to get to where I am today, which is living my dream as a professor studying environmental chemistry. I hope to inspire other female scientists to fight through adversity and pursue a career in STEM.”
The fellowship, which begins Sept. 1, is awarded to tenure-track faculty at colleges, universities and research institutions. Each fellow receives a $76,000 financial award, mentoring support, and a built-in community of colleagues who share an interest in the well-being of Gulf Coast communities and ecosystems.
Since the award is not attached to a specific project, fellows are able to use the support to pursue bold, nontraditional research that they otherwise might not be able to conduct, program administrators say.
“The early years of a researcher’s career are a critical time. This program gives fellows the independence and flexibility to explore untested ideas and develop lasting collaborations,” said Lauren Alexander Augustine, executive director of the Gulf Research Program.
“The 2020 class of fellows are a distinguished group of individuals who have demonstrated superior scholarship, exceptional scientific and technical skills, and the ability to work across disciplines.”
Zito is currently collaborating research efforts with Malay Ghose Hajra, associate professor and chair of UNO’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to combine knowledge and tools from each of their disciplines to tackle coastal erosion problems around Southeast Louisiana.
“The collaboration with civil and environmental engineering is an exciting opportunity to study contaminants in our own backyard which will give undergraduate and graduate students perspective regarding how a chemists approaches contaminants versus an engineer,” Zito said.
Nearly half of the population of Louisiana live on the coast and are in danger of losing their homes due to coastal erosion.
One approach to mitigating against the risks of coastal zone habitation has been to alter coastal environments through placement of dredged material and the modification of natural waterways to provide a larger barrier against inland flooding and to increase the likelihood of floodwater runoff respectively, Zito said.
“Our interdisciplinary collaboration focuses on developing a much needed, better understanding of the chemical and physical interaction between dredged materials, altered waterways and natural environments,” Zito said.