Unseen and unforeseen: measuring nanomaterials in the environment

International interest and investment in nanotechnology is growing—said panelists in this morning’s public forum in Washington, D.C. hosted by RTI International—and development and commercialization of this technology need to meet societal expectations. That is, explained moderator Jim Trainham of RTI, the public is concerned with understanding and controlling nanotechnology since, if it cannot be controlled, the technology is not considered helpful to society. Perhaps surprisingly, nanoparticles are not just synthetic, engineered nanotubes—nanoparticles occur naturally as salt from ocean spray or as ash from a volcanic eruption. “We are exposed to nanomaterials constantly,” said Cole Matson from Duke University’s Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, “every breath we take.” It is this abundance of tiny materials that makes measuring the engineered nanoparticles more difficult. As Michele Ostraat from RTI’s Center for Aerosol and Nanomaterials Engineering explained, it is almost impossible for researchers to distinguish between background—that is the common, everyday nanoparticles—and engineered particles. Even more complicated, she said, there is a general lack of instrumentation that can perform real-time field measurements. Therefore, the concern with regulating nanotechnology is finding a way to measure how the engineered particles interact with the environment, including how  the environment alters these particles once released. It is a matter of measuring the risk to human and ecosystem health by determining the exposure to and hazard of the materials, Matson explained. “Everything has an impact,” said Matson, “the question is, is it detrimental?” So far there are general answers to these broad environmental questions. According to Matson, nanoparticles will reach the environment, they will be taken up by organisms, they may be toxic, they can alter ecosystems—including “managed” ecosystems such as wastewater treatment facilities—and they do interact with other contaminants. For all that is still unknown, there are some existing tools that are known being used to track the effects of nanomaterials, said Sally Tinkle from the U.S. National Science and Technology Council. For example, she said, “we have a long history of tracking particulate matter.” Matson and Ostraat agreed that aerosol research is the most prepared for tracking the distribution of nanoparticles. “We are farther ahead with air than water and particularly soils,” said Matson. One of the primary challenges is that, like any material, nanoparticles change when introduced to an environment. The physical and chemical properties shift, said Tinkle, “gold becomes red, carbon becomes electric.” As Matson outlined as an example, salt alters particles in a marine ecosystem. Therefore, how nanoparticles are affected by salinity in the ocean determines where the particles will be distributed in the water column. Understanding this dispersal could help determine which marine organisms would likely be the most...

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Brown faces, urban places and green spaces: achieving diversity in environmental fields
Mar30

Brown faces, urban places and green spaces: achieving diversity in environmental fields

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2009 Programme for the International Student Assessment results showed the United States ranking 19th in math and 14th in science out of 31 countries. Following this news, President Obama announced a $250 million proposal to increase funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. As he stated in his budget message, “In a generation, we’ve fallen from first place to ninth place in the proportion of our young people with college degrees. We lag behind other nations in the quality of our math and science education.” The following post, contributed by Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, graduate student at University of Illinois-Chicago and recent recipient of ESA’s 2011 Graduate Student Policy Award, tells how diversity in environmental fields shows promise for the future of science. The student diversity was astounding, beautiful brown faces with shining eyes sat attentive and hanging on every word of the career panelists. This was the scene at last year’s Green College and Careers Fair organized by the Ecological Society of America and The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program. The goal was to diversify environmental and ecological careers by reaching out to underserved communities: The hope is to change the face and fields of environmental careers by providing opportunities to those who traditionally lack access. The career fair was hosted at The New School in New York City—over 100 high school students (from 9 schools around the New York-New Jersey area) were treated to a highly professional career fair, including structured school-to-college workshops. The event was made possible with support from the Toyota USA Foundation. Students received information about environmental and natural resource careers and topics such as research ethics, laboratory work tips, resume guidelines, reference letters and tips on being successful in college. Other sessions included exhibitor presentations, a financial aid workshop, mock job interviews and a career panel. The career panelists—Victor Medina, Kellen Marshall-Gillespie, Charlee Glenn and Ann-Marie Alcantara— were young professionals and alumni of both the LEAF and ESA’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) program. They addressed more than just traditional college talk—they got to the heart of being minorities in fields where they are underrepresented. Glenn, a panelist and SEEDS alumna, shared her story of how ecology became an interest, which subsequently developed into her current position as Diversity Programs Assistant for ESA’s SEEDS program. Medina, a LEAF alumnus, discussed how he uses his educational and personal success to influence others within his community to do better—not only for themselves but for the environment as well. Alcantara, also a LEAF alumna, talked about her goals of being...

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Science in a “culture of news-grazers”

When was the last time you sat down after dinner to watch the local news? How about the last time you forwarded or received a link to a news story? Odds are, with the prevalence of social networking, blogs and email, you probably sent or received news in some form during your lunch break this afternoon. In fact, just by reading this post you are providing evidence that consumers tend to prefer cherry picking news throughout the day, rather than replenishing their news supply all at once.

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