CEE PhD Student Selected for DOE Research Program

April 17, 2019

Natalia Neal-Waltham will pursue research on mercury contamination at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Talia Neal-Waltham

Natalia Neal-Walthall, a PhD candidate in environmental health engineering, is one of 70 graduate students across the nation named to the most recent cohort of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program.

Open to graduate students in a range of scientific and engineering fields, SCGSR supports awardees to conduct part of their dissertation research at a host DOE laboratory. Neal-Walthall, a third-year doctoral student whose advisor is Associate Professor Heileen Hsu-Kim, will be conducting research on mercury contamination with the Earth Sciences Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

Working with DOE scientists Eric Pierce and Dwayne Elias, Neal-Walthall will be employing DNA-based methods to better understand how microbial communities in biofilms affect mercury transformation in the environment as she analyzes samples from Duke’s Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT) research facility. 

“It’s a tremendously important opportunity for me because mercury really is a contaminant that has to be studied from a biogeochemical perspective, meaning that water chemistry, geochemistry, and microbial community all affect the way it behaves in the environment and how well it can bioaccumulate,” noted Neal-Walthall. “At Duke, I work in a geochemistry lab so I wouldn’t ordinarily get to approach this topic from a molecular biology perspective. The experience at Oak Ridge will allow me to broaden the scope of my dissertation and really work in an interdisciplinary space long-term.” 

Neal-Walthall has a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from the University of New Orleans. For several years prior to graduate school, she worked as a structural engineer, consulting on and designing offshore wind farms.

SCGSR awardees were selected from a diverse pool of university-based graduate applicants, and their selection was merit-based.

“These graduate student awards prepare young scientists for STEM careers critically important to the DOE mission,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “We are proud of the accomplishments these outstanding awardees have already made and look forward to following their achievements in years to come. They represent the future leadership and innovation that will allow American science and engineering to excel in the 21st century.” 

Neal-Walthall was selected as part of SCGSR’s 2018 Solicitation 2 cycle. The SCGSR program is currently accepting applications from doctoral students for its 2019 Solicitation 1 cycle (deadline 5 p.m. ET on May 9). 

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