Summer 2018 Research Internship

Application deadline is Friday, February 9, 2018.

The World Health Organization defines environmental health as “encompassing the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted towards preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments.” The field of environmental health is multi-disciplinary and requires scientific contributions from many fields to elucidate threats to human health. 

The Superfund Research Program (SRP) is a network of university grants funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) that are designed to seek solutions to the complex health and environmental issues associated with toxic chemicals found at the nation’s hazardous waste sites. The Duke University NIEHS-funded Superfund Research Center (SRC) focuses on early, low-dose exposures to toxins and their developmental impacts that are usually only evident during later life stages. Full-time summer research internship opportunities for undergraduate and Master’s students (Biology, Psychology, Neuroscience, Engineering, Environmental Sciences, and Science Communication) are offered in the SRC projects and cores below:

Project 1: Cholinergic and Monoaminergic Mechanisms of Persistent Neurobehavioral Toxicity (PIs: Drs. Edward Levin, Frederic Seidler, Theodore Slotkin)  The focus of this project is to better understand what happens in the brain when someone who is already being exposed to one chemical (nicotine from cigarette smoke or dexamethasone from preterm labor therapy) is exposed to chemicals such as organophosphate pesticides, PAHs, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

Project 2: Altering the Balance of Adipogenic and Osteogenic Regulatory Pathways from Early Life Exposure to HPCs and AOPEs (PIs: Drs. Heather Stapleton, Lee Ferguson, Seth Kullman)  This project focuses on two groups of hazardous chemicals, halogenated phenolic compounds (HPCs) and aryl organophosphate esters (AOPEs), chemicals of interest to the Superfund program and our stakeholders. The US population receives chronic exposure to both groups of chemicals, the AOPEs (e.g., flame retardant triphenyl phosphate, TPP) and the flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are metabolized to HPCs. Compounds from both groups are detected in human tissues, and higher levels are reported in young children compared to adults. Further, these compounds are considered endocrine disruptors because they interfere with thyroid hormone regulation. Research in this project will help identify the mechanisms by which these compounds interfere with thyroid hormone regulation and ultimately alter growth and skeletal development.

Project 3: Persistent Mitochondrial and Epigenetic Effects of Early Life Toxicant Exposure (PIs: Drs. Joel Meyer, Susan Murphy, Theodore Slotkin)  Growing evidence suggests that chemicals of interest to Superfund stakeholders can have persistent, toxic effects on the mitochondria, and that some individuals may be more sensitive to these effects due to genetic differences. This project aims to test which important Superfund chemicals and chemicals of emerging concern are mitochondrial toxicants; whether effects from exposure are persistent throughout life and into subsequent generations; and whether the effects are stronger for individuals from some genetic backgrounds

Project 4: Mechanisms and Consequences of Evolved Adaptation to Environmental Pollution (PIs: Drs. Richard Di Giulio, David Hinton)  This project continues the Duke Superfund Research Center’s (SRC’s) long-standing research in the Elizabeth River in Virginia. For years, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were discharged into the river from several wood treatment facilities that employed creosote. Researchers from the Duke SRC have spent years studying a fish species native to the area, the killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus) and its response to living in contaminated environments. Their research has found that killifish at contaminated sites exhibit pollution-driven adaptation to high levels of PAHs at these sites. Current research is examining fitness costs associated with this evolved resistance, and with the killifish and zebrafish models, mechanisms of PAH developmental toxicity and later life consequences of embryonic exposures to low levels of PAHs.

Project 5: Engineering the Physico-Chemical Environment to Enhance the Bioremediation of Developmental Toxicants in Sediment Fungal-Bacterial Biofilms (PIs: Drs. Claudia Gunsch, Heileen Hsu-Kim, Rytas Vilgalys, Mark Wiesner)  Bioremediation is the use of specific microorganisms to remediate, or clean up, contaminated sites. This project investigates bioremediation as an alternative to common remediation techniques that can have lasting negative effects on ecosystems. Such approaches, including excavation or dredging of contaminated sites, allow the contaminants to remain in the soil or sediment, which must then be moved to a storage or impoundment location. This project aims to remediate the contaminants on site to limit the long-term impacts of toxic waste.

Neurobehavioral Toxicity Core (PI: Dr. Edward Levin)  This core supports the Center’s projects by providing information concerning neurobehavioral consequences of exposure to toxicants, including pesticides, flame retardants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Neurotoxicant impacts are evaluated using in vivo models with rats, zebrafish and killifish. Neurobehavioral functions investigated include sensorimotor function, learning, memory, attention, and emotional response. This core connects the findings of mechanistic studies to functional consequences in living organisms.

 Research Translation Core (PI: Dr. Charlotte Clark)  The Research Translation Core (RTC) uses science communication (also called research translation) techniques to share the Center’s research results with critical members of the scientific, governmental, and lay community. The RTC works closely with the Community Engagement Core (CEC – see below for more information on this core) to support their mission of engaging communities around environmental health. Students affiliated with this core will support research translation projects and activities to effectively communicate research findings of the Center to scientists, policy-makers, and interested/affected community stakeholders. Summer interns with the RTC work on a variety of projects, but typically focus on one project that is central to their time at Duke. In the past, these projects have included work on the effectiveness of fish consumption advisories and communicating information about soil contamination to community gardeners.

Community Engagement Core (PI: Dr. Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza) Th Community Engagement Core (CEC) works with communities across North Carolina affected by environmental contaminants to facilitate communication between researchers and these impacted communities and to address environmental health concerns. Community members can contact us with short-term requests for information related to environmental contamination or with proposals for longer term engagement through participatory research projects and/or education and outreach activities. By “community engagement,” we mean working in an ongoing way with a community, listening closely to their needs and learning from their experiences. Summer interns with the CEC work on a variety of projects and often work closely with the RTC to support our aims; typically, interns focus on one project that is central to their time at Duke. In the past, these projects have included engaging with subsistence fish consumers in North Carolina to improve fish consumption advisories, working with community gardeners to address issues of soil contamination, and collaborating with communities near former industrial sites to answer their environmental health questions.

Analytical Chemistry Core (PIs: Drs. Lee Ferguson, Heather Stapleton, Heileen Hsu-Kim) The Analytical Chemistry Core (ACC) fosters the evaluation of contaminant exposure to humans and wildlife and the determination of contaminant distribution in the environment. The core provides routine quantitative and qualitative analysis of organic and metal contaminants on a routine basis to investigators in support of Duke SRC research projects. The ACC also develops novel methods for emerging contaminants of concern in environmental and biological samples on an as-needed basis. Finally, the ACC serves as a consulting and training resource for cutting-edge analytical chemistry needs within the Duke SRC.

Positions are open to students currently enrolled in a four year post-secondary institution either as an undergraduate or master’s student. All summer trainees will be paid a competitive hourly wage and are expected to work full-time and participate in training for a maximum of 35 hours per week (start and end dates are flexible between mid-May through mid-August). Students will have the opportunity to visit other Superfund Center labs located on Duke’s campus. In addition, students will participate in weekly research discussions, lab meetings, seminars, and workshops.

Applicants should email a (1) cover letter explaining their educational background and interest in research and specifying the project(s) and/or PIs of interest, and (2) resume addressed to both:  Dr. Joel Meyer, Director of Training, and Sarah Phillips, Program Administrator

The deadline for application submission is Friday, February 9, 2018.

Questions regarding project descriptions, summer expectations or benefits should contact Sarah Phillips by email (see above). Please do not directly contact individual PIs.

More information about the Duke University Superfund Research Center can be found here.

January 2018
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