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Four WVU faculty members honored with prestigious NSF CAREER awards

Image of four faculty NSF Career Award recipients

The National Science Foundation has named four West Virginia University faculty members as 2024 NSF CAREER award winners. Those researchers are (clockwise from top left) Margaret Bennewitz, Katy Goodrich, Oishi Sanyal and Kevin Orner. (WVU Photo)

From studying topics as varied as space science to sustainability, four West Virginia University researchers have been named Faculty Early Career Development award winners by the National Science Foundation.  

Story by Micaela Morrissette, Research Writer, WVU Today
Photos of Bennewitz, Sanyal and Orner taken by Paige Nesbit


The award is considered the most elite from the NSF that supports junior faculty.   

WVU’s 2024 CAREER award recipients are Katy Goodrich, of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, and Margaret Bennewitz, Kevin Orner and Oishi Sanyal, all of the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

This year’s awards amount to $2.9 million, totaling nearly $25 million WVU’s awardees have brought in from the program since 1997. Overall, 52 WVU faculty have received the award.

“The dedication of our faculty to conduct the highest levels of research never ceases to amaze me,” said Vice President for Research Fred King. “These four individuals are a testament to our standing as an R1 university. Not only will their research propel their careers, but it will have an impact on society as a whole.”  

Margaret Bennewitz, improving MRI safety

Statler College

Margaret Bennewitz, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is reimagining the contrast agents that are injected into patients undergoing MRI scans.

Currently, it is unknown whether MRI dyes activate neutrophils and platelets in the bloodstream. If activation occurs, neutrophils and platelets could aggregate and block blood flow, “just as a clump of hair clogs a drainpipe,” Bennewitz said.

Her research will determine how to modulate the design of metal oxide nanoparticles in contrast MRIs to avoid that risk.

Most attempts to develop new nanoparticle contrast agents for MRIs focus on unintended side effects affecting a common type of white blood cell called a macrophage. An abundance of neutrophils and platelets also circulate in the body, but those blood cells are often ignored in contrast agent design.

Bennewitz explained that her group will generate “new knowledge about how nanoparticles’ physical characteristics – their metal content, size and surface coating – affect how they interact with neutrophils and platelets.”

The concept originated from Esra Al Abazaid’s undergraduate side project, she said.

“We were isolating neutrophils and creating metal oxide nanoparticles in the lab for separate experiments, and we were curious to see what happened when we combined the two. Man, did we strike gold! Most exciting for me is how we’ve come together as a team. The first paper we published about this work had major contributions from students including Hunter Snoderly, Kasey Freshwater, Celia Martinez de la Torre, Dhruvi Panchal and Jenna Vito.”

WVU students working with Bennewitz will be exposed to nanoparticle synthesis and downstream blood cell studies. They’ll also have integral roles in outreach to K-12 students from rural, low-income households in West Virginia, collaborating with programs like Upward Bound, the West Virginia Science Public Outreach Team and the Spark! Imagination and Science Center to use their nanoparticle research to ignite interest in STEM.

Katy Goodrich, making space science accessible

Eberly College  

Katy Goodrich, assistant professor of space physics, believes her research project will make space science more accessible to institutions with limited resources. For her project, she’ll design a CubeSat, or miniature satellite, mission to study the Earth’s auroral acceleration region.

“This region is an extremely interesting place in the Earth’s magnetosphere where energy in magnetic and electric fields are converted to particle energy,” Goodrich said. “We would be using this opportunity to develop electric field instruments for CubeSats, which hasn’t been done successfully for the magnetosphere before.”  

An intended outcome is to create resources for scientists to use in studying space.

“As it stands, if you want to measure electric fields in space, you need to be affiliated with large-scale, well-funded missions and institutions,” she said. “Not everyone has access to such opportunities or funds, and that limits the science you can do. This work will help make all space measurements more accessible.”

Both WVU and high school students will participate in the project. Goodrich will also collaborate with Upward Bound in which high schoolers will be able to develop code to examine space satellite measurements and assist in testing procedures.

“Space science utilizes satellites to measure plasma in space,” Goodrich added. “But we are trending more and more toward small satellites or CubeSat-type satellites at a pace where some of our scientific instruments can’t keep up. Electric field instruments have been very hard to adapt to smaller satellites. This puts them at risk of being underused, which will limit our ability to measure all components of space plasma. This work will aim to bridge that gap and ensure electric field instruments can be utilized for all space missions and will not limit our measurements in the future.” 

Kevin Orner, recovering resources from waste in rural regions

Statler College  

Kevin Orner, a Maurice and Jo Ann Wadsworth Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of environmental engineering, is developing a data-driven framework that will bridge the gap between research and implementation of technologies that sustainably recover valuable resources from organic waste in rural regions like West Virginia and Costa Rica in ways that reflect their own unique contexts. 

Orner said, “Currently, most of our organic waste – sewage sludge, animal manure, food waste, agricultural crop residues – is land applied or goes to a landfill. Those practices can hurt the environment, either by emitting greenhouse gases or discharging excess nutrients and pathogens to surface water. They can also hurt the economy. The United States has spent $2.2 billion treating freshwater bodies for excessive nutrients from organic waste. Food waste and food loss on a global scale has cost $1 billion.

“Fortunately, we have a chance to recover resources like nutrients, energy and water from waste. We can significantly reduce the environmental impacts, and we can turn organic waste from a financial liability into an asset.”

As part of that endeavor, Orner will rethink how research happens within a community and how students engage with research in the real world.

At the Statler College, he’ll integrate undergraduate and graduate learning experiences around the idea of a circular waste economy with training on topics of sustainable development, data science and policy. He’ll also create a pathway within the curriculum for a civil engineering master’s degree that includes not only a research thesis but a year of service during which students provide dedicated support to West Virginia communities with engineering needs.  

“This work on resource recovery will address many of the ‘grand challenges’ of environmental engineering,” Orner said. “It’s about curbing climate change and sustainably supplying food, water and energy. It’s about designing a future without waste. And it’s about helping students put into practice their desire to have purpose and make an impact.” 

Oishi Sanyal, making fertilizer production more sustainable  

Statler College 

Oishi Sanyal, a Wayne and Kathy Richards Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of chemical engineering, is developing membranes that can selectively recover key ingredients of fertilizer from wastewater. Her work addresses all three points of what she calls the “food, water and energy nexus,” with the potential to reduce fertilizer production’s large carbon footprint and prevent nutrient-rich wastes from reaching waterways.   

Sanyal said, “To grow food, we need fertilizer. Traditionally, people have relied on processes that are highly energy intensive to produce nutrients for fertilizer, but our lab is creating a technology that can recover those nutrients cheaply and more sustainably from waste sources such as poultry litter.  

“In doing so, we kill two birds with one stone,” she continued. “Extracting the nutrients before they end up in our water means that we do not have to spend billions of dollars remediating the overgrowth of algae that happens when waste runoff causes an excess of nutrients in bodies of water like rivers or lakes.” 

Her use of membranes in this context is innovative. If it succeeds, Sanyal said her group, which collaborates with Statler colleagues Lance Lin, Kostas Sierros and Cerasela Dinu, will be at the forefront of nutrient-recovery research.

She will involve rural high school students and high school STEM teachers, and multiple WVU students in her research, with special attention to recruiting first-generation college students from West Virginia to work on the project. She’s especially excited about a partnership with LaunchLab that will provide entrepreneurship training to undergraduate researchers.

“I can’t wait to grow this initiative so we have more start-up opportunities available to our engineering students,” Sanyal said.



Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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