Weekly Update: Pumpkins, DICE, Hexavalent Chromium and more....

October 26, 2016


In this week’s Update, we feature a cross-section of news that underscores three topics central to our school’s mission: diversity and inclusion; impactful interdisciplinary research; and student engagement.

If you look back over past Updates, you’ll see we’ve included items highlighting the same topics nearly every week since the semester began.

See a trend emerging? I do. And I like to think it’s because these topics, and the values they represent, are becoming an increasingly core part of who we are and what we do at the Nic School.

Breaking down barriers – disciplinary, demographic, cultural and socioeconomic ones alike – is vital not only to the future of our school, but also to the future of our profession and planet.

Let’s keep up the great work!






  1. Pumpkin carving and pie eating were on the menu Tuesday afternoon as Nic Schoolers indulged in a lot of fall fun. MEM student Kristin Murphy shows off her prize pumpkin above.
  2. Watch Betsy Albright and State Rep. Graig Meyer (NC House District 50) compete for the pie championship against our MEM students. Photo and video by Lyndsi Lewis.
  3. The Nic School is joining with DICE (Diversity and Inclusive Community for the Environment) and the Black and Latino Club to sponsor a panel discussion, “Showcasing Diversity in Environmental Professions,” at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28, in Field Auditorium. The event is open to all Duke students. Panelists Cyndy Yu Robinson, Alberto Alzamora and Thomas Easley will share their experiences as environmental professionals from diverse backgrounds, and will answer students’ questions about the opportunities that exist, and the obstacles that remain, for creating a more diverse and inclusive environmental workforce. MEM Lili Pita will moderate the discussion. A networking reception will follow. 
  4. Hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich, is far more abundant in drinking water wells in North Carolina than previously thought, a new study led by Avner Vengosh finds. The contamination was found in 90 percent of all wells tested, sometimes at levels far exceeding recommended health standards. Avner’s team’s analysis shows it stems from natural causes and not from leaking coal ash ponds as N.C. water-quality officials first thought last year when high levels of the contaminant were found in some wells near coal ash ponds. Rachel Coyte, Jonathan Karr, Jennifer Harkness, Andrew Kondash, Rose B. Merola and Gary Dwyer all co-authored the new study. Check out the story here.
  5. A three-year, $820,000 grant from NASA will fund a new Nic School-led interdisciplinary research project on mangrove loss and protection in South Asia. I’m principal investigator on the grant; my co-investigators include Brian Murray, Stuart Pimm, Brian Silliman, and adjunct faculty member Chandra Giri. Our project will integrate research on remote sensing, conservation biology and environmental economics to better understand the rates, patterns and causes of mangrove loss in South Asia since 1985, and identify effective mitigation and protection strategies to reverse or slow the decline. Mangroves play key roles in carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, flood mitigation and other vital ecosystem services, so finding new and better ways to protect them is critical. You can learn more here
  6. The Nic School was well represented at the North Carolina Environmental Justice Summit last Friday, Oct. 21. The summit covered topics such as coal ash contamination, lead poisoning prevention programs, antibiotic resistance, and controlled animal feeding operations. PhD student Danielle Purifoy, who’s on the board of the N.C. Environmental Justice Network, gave a talk on her dissertation project, “In Conditions of Fresh Water.”  Liz Shapiro-Garza, Catherine Kastleman, and Bryan Luukinen of the Duke Superfund Research Center presented a poster on their research project that will engage North Carolina community gardeners to reduce exposures to soil contaminants and pesticides. Megan Mullin, PhD student Katy Hansen and Environmental Sciences and Policy major Jeff Feng were also active participants. Read more here.  
  7. Twelve Nic School students are now serving as Environment Hall Ambassadors to give guided tours of our LEED Platinum-certified facility to visiting alums, donors and other interested parties. The students conducted their first tours for a group of about 40 donors on Donor Appreciation Day, Oct. 15. The new ambassadors are: PhD students Rachel Coyte and Xiaoxing Cui; MEM students Gina Daniel, Sydney Fishman, Bridget Flaherty, Keith Glassbrook, Jaclyn McGarry, Lauren Mechak, Joseph Moss, Whitney Roberts and Colin Walker; and undergrad Micaela Unda. We’ll be creating a webpage soon where you can learn more about the Ambassador program and schedule tours through it. 
  8. If you’re looking to start your Halloween celebration a bit early this year, stop by the Black and Latino Club’s “Dia de Los Muertos Carnaval” from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. tomorrow in the LSRC Courtyard. The event, which is inspired by Day of the Dead celebrations traditional in Mexico (and increasingly popular in lots of other places worldwide), will feature music, food and drinks, face painting, a guacamole-making competition and carnival games. Who knows – maybe La Catrina, the skeletal but universally beloved grande dame of Dia de los Muertos, will even make an appearance.