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Weidhaas, Akkerman Earn Prestigious NSF CAREER awards

Portraits of Jennifer Weidhaas and V’yacheslav (Slava) Akkerman.

Jennifer Weidhaas and V’yacheslav (Slava) Akkerman.

For the second time in two years, two faculty members from West Virginia University’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources have earned the prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.


Jennifer Weidhaas, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering , has earned the award for her work in detecting biological contaminants in environmental samples. The award will allow V’yacheslav (Slava) Akkerman , assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering to further his work on promotion and prevention of flame acceleration and transition to detonation. Each award comes with at least $500,000 in funding over a five-year period.

“As dean, it is extremely gratifying to yet again see two young faculty members recognized for their research at a national level,” said Gene Cilento , Glen H. Hiner Dean of the Statler College. “It speaks to the quality of research being done by Drs. Weidhaas and Akkerman and their recently hired colleagues at WVU, which plays a role in the economic development and health of West Virginia.”

Working to ensure water safety

Declining water quality and quantity have become global issues of concern, requiring research into ways to carefully manage our water resources. Recent events in Charleston and Flint, Michigan, prove just how precarious the issue is in the United States, with hundreds of thousands of people being impacted by contaminated water supplies.

One hindrance to providing clean drinking water and safe recreational waters is the presence of waterborne pathogens.

“With increasing water scarcity predicted in the future, we need tools to more accurately monitor and protect our nation’s water resources,” Weidhaas said. “Unfortunately none of our current testing methods meet all criteria established for water quality monitoring. Therefore, there is a critical need for tools to more accurately determine the microbial safety of our water.”

Weidhaas, who works on water quality issues ranging from rapid response to chemical spills to improving the microbiological quality of water, plans to develop a rapid method for tracking hundreds of waterborne pathogens as well as statistical tools for identifying the source of water impairment. She will develop a microarray – or lab on a chip – that can simultaneously detect hundreds of pathogens, fecal indicator bacteria and microbial source tracking markers.

“This research will improve environmental stewardship efforts and protection of public health,” said Weidhaas. “Rapid detection of waterborne pathogens will aid epidemiologists in determining human health risk from exposure to contaminated water.”

Weidhaas noted that preliminary data used to create her award proposal was the result of a grant she received from the WVU ADVANCE Sponsorship Program. Funded by the NSF, ADVANCE supports young female scientists by providing mentoring from faculty members outside their department, allowing them to explore their science in new ways.

Weidhaas will involve both graduate and undergraduate students in the project, resulting in them becoming trained in cross disciplinary subjects such as molecular biology, microbiology and environmental engineering. Women who are secondary school teachers will be introduced to the results through the creation and demonstration of learning modules through the WVU Association for Women in Science.

“The Research Experience for Teachers will allow the training of a high school science teacher and the adoption of the teaching modules in secondary schools,” Weidhaas said. “The results of this work will be broadly disseminated through peer reviewed publications, conferences, workshops, seminars and the learning modules.”

Weidhaas earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in civil and environmental engineering from University of California-Davis in 2002 and 2006, respectively, after completing her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Montana State University. Before joining the faculty at WVU, she worked for a small environmental engineering firm and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Challenging what we know about fire

People who witness a fire oftentimes report hearing an explosion that resulted from a chemical reaction. Investigators then begin to look for clues in an effort to understand if that reaction happened at a speed below that of the speed of sound – known as deflagration or flame – or above – known as detonation. If the fire involved both, investigators then look for clues as to how fast the event moved from deflagration to detonation.

“From a practical consideration, the deflagration to detonation transition – or DDT – events influence countless disasters, such as explosions in power plants and mining accidents, that claim hundreds of lives every year,” said Akkerman. “On the positive side of things, however, DDT can be employed in advanced technologies such as micro-combustors and pulse-detonation engines of next-generation hypersonic aircraft. This makes DDT an intriguing phenomenon with applications ranging from combustion and inertial confined fusion to thermonuclear supernovae.”

Akkerman’s research will bridge the gap between fundamental studies and practical applications by characterizing the mechanisms promoting, controlling or preventing the DDT process. He will investigate the possibility of replacing a hazardous detonation in energy-efficient manufacturing with a safer alternative combustion regime. Additionally, a novel predictive tool for fire safety and DDT risk assessment will be developed, which is important for West Virginia, whose economy relies heavily on coal mining and shale gas drilling industries.

As part of the award, Akkerman will integrate his research into an extensive education module that promotes awareness of advanced combustion research in schools and colleges.

“The educational module will include an on-campus annual training program organized in partnership with the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium , as well as the delivery of lectures at various schools state wide,” Akkerman said. “It will also include the development of a new, advanced course on computational combustion that we hope to offer both onsite and online, which is in line with WVU’s initiatives in the area of shale gas utilization.”

The educational module, Akkerman added, will be translated into Concept Warehouse, an NSF-sponsored web-based instructional tool that can be used to fit an individual faculty member's teaching philosophy and her/his learning environment.

Akkerman earned his doctorate from Umeå University, Sweden, after completing his bachelor's and master's degrees at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in Russia. He also holds a philosophy licentiate from Umeå University and a candidate of sciences (PhD equivalent) degree from the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Turbulence Research, co-led by Stanford University and NASA Ames Research Center, and a professional research staff member in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University. 

The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, program supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. This is the sixth straight year that a member of the Statler College faculty has been selected to receive this honor.



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