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Kristen Jellison: Lehighs 2006 NSF CAREER Award Recipients, Part I

In part two of our profile of Lehigh engineering’s 2006 NSF CAREER Award recipients, Yunfeng Zhang describes his research that combines wireless technology with structural engineering to improve the safety of bridges and other superstructures, as well as his efforts to integrate into one curriculum an understanding of various disciplines and specialties improve students’ ability to tackle structural engineering problems holistically.


The National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is known for granting prestigious annual awards in support of the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars who effectively integrate research and education. Lehigh engineering has a strong tradition of integrated teaching and learning opportunities, and six faculty members have received this prized recognition in the last three years alone.

So, it comes as no surprise that, in 2006, Lehigh engineering faculty members have once again risen to the challenge. Yunfeng Zhang, structural engineering, and Kristen Jellison, environmental engineering, have recently been named by the NSF to this important honor – and the 5-year, $400,000 grants are certainly validation of the federal agency’s interest in the success of their respective research.

And although their projects and intended results differ dramatically, both Kristen and Yungfeng say that much of the credit goes to the supportive network of senior faculty and administrators that helped to guide them through the strenuous process of applying for and supporting this federally-sponsored research funding opportunity.

Kristen Jellison: A Watershed Year

Kristen Jellison

Its cause potentially lurks in every waterway, aquifer, reservoir, well, community pool and municipal water-distribution system in the world – industrialized and developing societies alike. In 2005, it struck nearly 4,000 New Yorkers, tied to a water park in Geneva, NY. It ran rampant through Douglass County, KS, in August 2003. In 1993, it made 400,000 Milwaukee, WI, residents sick -- and killed more than 100. And in areas of the world where compromised immune systems are prevalent and rivers provide direct drinking and bathing water for humans and livestock alike, the threat is even more severe.

It’s cryptosporidiosis, and Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Kristen Jellison is helping to lead the fight against this global menace. Her research into novel methods of minimizing its spread, along with a corollary educational-enrichment component, earned the CAREER Award – a major accomplishment for a junior faculty member, and a welcome boost to Lehigh’s environmental research efforts and its undergraduate-focused Global Citizenship program.

Jellison focuses on the prevention of waterborne disease through improved water treatment technology and a better understanding of microbial pathogen ecology. Specifically, her work in understanding the effect of biofilms in fostering the spread of “crypto” caught the NSF’s attention.

Cryptosporidiosis is an intestinal illness caused by a microscopic parasite called Cryptosporidium parvum, an organism which causes gastrointestinal disease that is self-limiting in otherwise healthy individuals but can be fatal for people with compromised immune systems. It is difficult to remove from water supplies because it defies disinfection and filtration – crypto is resistant to chlorine disinfection and too small to effectively filter. Worse still, once contracted, the disease is virtually untreatable.

“Biofilms can exist almost anywhere crypto does,” explains Kristen. “Most people would recognize a biofilm as the slimy layer that sometimes forms on rocks or sediment in the bottom of river channels, lakes, and streams. However, biofilms can occur everywhere there’s water – anywhere from a groundwater source relied upon by a small village, to the public water distribution network of a modern, urbanized environment. We’ve seen indication that there is interplay between biofilms and crypto, and we’re focusing on understanding this connection and its contribution to local or regional crypto outbreaks.”

This research effort -- part of Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative – is among the very first anywhere in the world to explore the details of the connection between biofilms and cryptosporidium. According to Kristen, “the link between biofilms and cryptosporidium is not yet very well-understood. Do biofilms entrap and quarantine crypto, protecting it from harsh environmental conditions, and then eventually release it as a concentrated source of parasites? Can increased knowledge about the interaction between biofilms and crypto be used to help keep an outbreak from occurring, or help minimize it once it’s begun? These are the questions we’ll be dedicating the next few years to answering, and the award from the NSF is a huge part of that.”

But this research is only part of why Kristen earned the CAREER Award. Applicants for this NSF funding submit a two-part proposal for review – one part is research, and the other focuses on educational enrichment and outreach. Kristen’s educational outreach component centered around the efforts of Lehigh’s “Students for Sustainable Development” which Kristen helps to lead, along with Professor Rick Weisman.

To learn more about the lehigh effort in Pueblo Nuevo, cick on the picture of the Lehigh investigative team

“Over the summer of 2005,” recalls Kristen, “We traveled to Pueblo Nuevo, Honduras, to assess a potential Lehigh University project to improve the water supply and sanitation systems for this rural village. Meetings with the local doctor, educational leaders, and the town mayor identified a need and a desire on the part of the local community to work with Lehigh University students on designing and implementing these improvements. In Fall 2005, we started a Lehigh University chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB) within the broader Lehigh student group Students for Sustainable Development (SSD). Our goal is to work in multi-disciplinary teams to provide a safe drinking water supply for the community of Pueblo Nuevo.”

According to Kristen, the goal of the project is to foster the Pueblo Nuevo relationship into a platform for cross-disciplinary learning opportunities, while providing a crucial service to the people of the community. “Engineering, finance, linguistics, cultural sensitivity – none of these exist in a vacuum, and neither should the students of each discipline,” says Kristen. “Students from each field will be involved in a project that focuses on their interest area, but all of the students will be working together and gaining exposure to the areas outside of their ‘usual’ academic pursuits.”

The goal of EWB is to create globally and environmentally aware students who use their learning opportunities to help developing communities with problems that can be solved by engineering technology. “It’s part global citizenship, part hands-on undergraduate research,“ Kristen explains. “What’s more, this multidisciplinary SSD approach will provide a model for international education that can be emulated by other universities to increase the number of internationally-responsible U.S. engineering students with hands-on experience in the developing world.”

Kristen reports that elementary and middle-schoolers in the Lehigh Valley as well in Honduras will also benefit from the NSF-funded project. “If producing globally-minded citizens is a goal of academia, it’s important to get kids thinking in these terms before their collegiate years,” she says. “So, students from schools here in our backyard as well as in Honduras will engage in hands-on laboratory and field activities in water quality and treatment, discussions about global citizenship from the perspective of various academic disciplines, and cultural exchanges with each other.”

For more information on the Environmental Initative at Lehigh, check out www.ei.lehigh.edu. For more information on Global Citizenship at Lehigh, go to www.lehigh.edu/~ingc/gcindex.htm.

Posted on Thursday, March 09, 2006

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