UNO Chemistry Professors Selected for NSF Awards Worth $700K

NEW ORLEANS — From the University of New Orleans:

Two University of New Orleans chemistry professors have been awarded CAREER grants, the most prestigious award presented by the National Science Foundation. Chemists David Podgorski and Phoebe Zito, whose expertise is in environmental chemistry, are the recipients of a 2024 Faculty Early Career Development Program award.

The award seeks to support faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. In selecting recipients, the NSF favors research with the potential to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

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“The awarding of two prestigious NSF Career Awards to Dr. Zito and Dr. Podgorski in the Chemistry Department is unheard of and is a testament to their outstanding skills as researchers in environmental effects of pollutants on ecosystem health across a broad range of environments,” said Steven Johnson, dean of the College of Sciences.

The awards, which are for five years, each total more than $700,000. The NSF awarded only 500 CAREER grants for the 2024 cycle.

“This award validates my path to become an independent researcher in this field. It also attests to the four years I put into the development of this research program, including my plan for education and outreach,” said Zito, who joined UNO’s faculty in 2019.

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Podgorski, who has been at UNO since 2017, said receiving the award as a faculty member in the UNO Department of Chemistry is the “cherry on top.”

“It is no secret that UNO lacks the research infrastructure that you would find in other major laboratories. This award is evidence that we can succeed despite those challenges and contribute to bringing resources to UNO instead of going elsewhere to find them,” Podgorski said.

Podgorski applauded the support he receives from his department.

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“The work environment is polar opposite from my previous experience,” said Podgorski, who described the climate at a former job as toxic. “The support I received from my colleagues in the Department of Chemistry re-energized me, even through COVID. Although I’ve been relatively successful over the past few years, this award provides confirmation that I have transcended those who tried to bring me down.”

For Zito and Podgorski, who are married, their awards mean double the exposure for their department and having an academic partner who can appreciate the research journey is a bonus.

“One of the perks of marrying your colleague is that you do not have to go on the academic rollercoaster alone and we both support one another’s professional and personal growth,” Zito said. “We couldn’t imagine our lives any other way.”

The awards also serve as testament to the impactful research—both locally and globally—that UNO’s faculty members are conducting, Zito and Podgorski said.

“Our chemistry department is very small, so this type of award means so much to us and helps put us on the map to be competitive at the national level,” Zito said. “Also, UNO is the only public research university in New Orleans. I can use it as a platform to let others know that despite our size and lack of resources, we can still do good science.

“At the end of the day, it helps provide better resources and opportunities for students who come to UNO to study chemistry.”

Podgorski’s Research

Thousands of oil spills occur each year in U.S. waters and energy from the sun can chemically break down the components released in such oil spills, Podgorski said. There are hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds in oil, and the products of their chemical transformation can have deleterious effects on human health and sensitive aquatic ecosystems, he said.

“Louisiana’s coast is invaluable to the state in terms of our economy and food resources,” Podgorski said. “The information obtained from this study will help us understand more about how our coast is impacted after an oil spill. Podgorski’s research, titled “Measurement of Photochemical Mechanisms, Rates, and Pathways of Radical Formation in Complex Organic Compounds,” will study the process, length of time, and compounds that survive when hydrocarbon compounds are exposed to sunlight.

There is a plethora of information about the breakdown and removal process of a couple of hundred small-size polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in oil by the sun. However, knowledge is lacking about the chemical fate of the large compounds that make-up the fraction known as the unresolved complex mixture (UCM), an important compound class, particularly in oil-spill scenarios, Podgorski said

The research will provide fundamental information on the reactivity of large compounds present in petroleum, he said. Data from the project will show how the sun removes these compounds from the environment and how long it takes.

“Essentially, this information will tell us how the compounds break apart in the environment, where they end up, and whether we should be concerned about them,” Podgorski said. “In turn, this information can be used in risk assessment models.”

In addition, his project will provide training and mentoring to college and high school students.

Zito’s Research

Zito’s research titled, “A Bottom Up Approach Toward Understanding the Sunlight Driven Mechanisms and Pathways for the Release of Metals from Petroleum,” will study how sunlight changes petroleum-bound metals and their impact on ecosystem health.

The energy in sunlight can break down petroleum, but very little is known about the resulting materials, Zito said. Even though the oil is invisible once it has been cleaned up, it can still have detrimental effects on aquatic health, she said. Oil in the presence of sunlight produces compounds that are water-soluble and can mobilize through the water. Several of these compounds contain heavy metals which are frequently found in petroleum mixtures, Zito said.

“This research is important to the public due to the increasing amount of pollution entering our water every day,” Zito said. “In Louisiana there are thousands of oil spills a year, each one having the potential to release heavy metals into the environment.” Research is necessary on heavy metal reactivity as well as heavy metal effects on aquatic life. Data from the project will show how sunlight helps release the metals from petroleum and how their transformations affect the natural biogeochemical cycle, Zito said.

Zito said the research will also include education and outreach activities to introduce students to potential STEM careers, including in industry.

“Educating the community through outreach events and having hands-on research available for New Orleans high school students is a way to spread awareness about the effects of heavy metal pollution on the environment,” Zito said.

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