Delaware Environmental Institute announces new graduate fellows

The Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) has selected its sixth class of DENIN Environmental Fellows. These highly competitive and prestigious fellowships offer financial support and professional development opportunities to doctoral students at the University of Delaware.

“Receiving the DENIN fellowship is an honor,” said Joanne Norris, “especially as the first student from Materials Science and Engineering to become a fellow. It has increased my confidence, and it is validating, as someone who pivoted from social science, to be recognized in this way as an engineer.”

Fellow Rachel Burch said, “The support, funding and resources are a huge blessing in propelling my research forward.”

The two-year fellowships support doctoral students whose research interests demonstrate a bridge between science and society. Four recipients were chosen following a rigorous selection process that included a written research proposal and an interview for finalists. Candidates are expected to demonstrate an ability and commitment to communicating and transferring the benefits of their research to the wider world in addition to the intellectual merit of their research proposals.

“One of DENIN’s goals is to support the development of future environmental leaders,” said Jeanette Miller, associate director for interdisciplinary programs. “Since 2014, DENIN has supported 32 doctoral fellows, and we are proud to see them moving on to excellent positions at universities, government agencies like the EPA and NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and environmental nonprofits.”

During the two-year fellowship, DENIN Fellows engage others through organizing environmental symposia, science communications competitions such as Pitch 90, and environmental service projects.

DENIN manages the fellows program, which is financially supported this year by private philanthropy and the NSF-funded Project WiCCED.

DENIN Fellows for 2020–22

Rachel Burch and her advisers, Michael Chajes and Daniel Cha, both professors of civil and environmental engineering, are using aerobic digestion — the breakdown of food waste by microorganisms in the presence of oxygen — to produce biofuel or fertilizer.

Burch is working with a digester that is about the size of a washing machine and is made to fit in a restaurant or cafeteria kitchen. The microbial breakdown process ends with liquified waste, which users typically dispose of with wastewater. But the liquid is so high in organic compounds and nutrient content that we would be wasting recoverable resources by simply disposing of it down the drain, hence the desire to put the end product to another use.

Burch earned a bachelor of science in civil and environmental engineering from Messiah College in 2018.

Fatemeh Izaditame is studying the cycling and transport of arsenic in heavily contaminated soils and sediments (underwater soils) affected by sea level rise and flooding. Arsenic exists in sediment in different forms with different toxicities and propensities to move, depending on conditions. Scientists and regulators need to understand the influence of sea level variations on the cycling, movement and toxicity of arsenic in coastal environments to develop effective regulations and management strategies.

Water is the main route through which arsenic enters the human body, so it’s critical to understand the processes leading to arsenic release from soil. Drinking arsenic-contaminated water can cause a variety of cancers and other ailments.

Izaditame completed a bachelor of science in civil engineering and a master of science in civil and environmental engineering and then worked for four years in an engineering consulting company in her native Iran. She is working with Donald Sparks, Unidel S. Hallock du Pont Chair and professor of plant and soil sciences at UD.

With Deb Jaisi, associate professor of environmental biogeochemistry, Spencer Moller is studying the degradation of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, with the goal of making its breakdown products more environmentally friendly and less persistent in the environment.

To explore the degradation process, Moller is developing a new method to trace all the various breakdown products along the way to complete degradation, rather than just looking at the final end products. He hopes to bias breakdown toward less environmentally persistent compounds with the help of minerals or microbial enzymes already present in the environment.

Moller earned a bachelor of arts in biology from the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, and worked for 10 years for Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed on their corn breeding program.

Joanne Norris hopes to use a biodegradable chemical made by bacteria as a passive sensor for high concentrations of nitrate in water. Farms on the Delmarva Peninsula produce over 550 million broilers — chickens raised for meat — each year. This density of birds means that nitrate from their waste can be high in water.

Norris’ chemical of interest, PHBHx, has piezoelectric potential, which means that it can generate a voltage if it’s manipulated mechanically. She is working on adding a coating to this chemical to optimize its passive nitrate-sensing ability. The goal is that when it comes in contact with nitrate at a concentration just below the legal limit, the sensor chemical will generate current and signal monitors that nitrate levels are high.

Norris’ advisers are John Rabolt, Karl W. and Renate Böer Professor, and LaShanda Korley, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. She earned dual undergraduate degrees in sustainability studies and economics at Hofstra University with minors in geology and fine arts. She also received a master of arts in climate and society from Columbia University.

More information about the DENIN Environmental Fellows program is available on the program webpage, including profiles of past recipients, information for prospective donors who wish to support the program, and application information in the late spring.


The Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), founded at the University of Delaware in 2009, is an interdisciplinary incubator of research, knowledge and solutions specifically dedicated to safeguarding the environment and addressing environmental issues. DENIN provides academic, government and industrial partners broad access to experts from multiple disciplines in a collaborative effort to advance environmental science, promote environmental education and devise innovative, multidimensional strategies for environmental sustainability.

Article by Joy Drohan | Photos courtesy of Rachel Burch, Fatemeh Izaditame, Spencer Moller and Joanne Norris | Graphic by Don Shenkle | October 30, 2020