DURHAM, N.C.--Jessica Levasseur and Brianna Elliott are the recipients of the Nicholas School of the Environment’s 2023 Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Graduate Student Manuscripts.

Levasseur, a fifth-year Environmental Health doctoral student in Heather Stapleton’s lab, and Elliott, a fourth-year Marine Science & Conservation doctoral student in Andrew Read’s lab, each will receive a $1,000 cash award and a framed certificate.

Toddi Steelman, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School, will officially present the awards at the Nicholas School’s Graduation Recognition Ceremony on May 13.

Levasseur won for her paper, “Characterizing Firefighters’ Exposure to Over 130 SVOCs Using Silicone Wristbands: A Pilot Study Comparing On-Duty and Off-Duty Exposures,” which was published in April 2022 in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

In it, she demonstrates how ordinary, inexpensive silicone wristbands can be used to quantify firefighters’ occupational exposure to more than 130 different potentially harmful chemicals and to differentiate between exposures that occur while fighting fires themselves and those that occur during other parts of a firefighter’s working day, such exposures to chemicals contained in materials used in the fire station, fire vehicles or training gear.

Levasseur’s pilot study suggests the bands—which work by absorbing traces of the semi-volatile organic compounds firefighters are exposed to during their shifts— could provide an effective and affordable way of tracking these exposures and identifying where and when the risks are highest.

That information could help lower the risks faced by firefighters, who currently are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14% more likely to die from the disease than the general U.S. adult population.

Elliott won for her paper, “Cetacean Bycatch Management in Regional Fisheries Management Organizations: Current Progress, Gaps, and Looking Ahead,” which was published in February 2023 in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

In it, she examines the measures that regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) worldwide have taken to help reduce the accidental by-catch of dolphins and whales in fishing gear. Based on her findings, she recommends further steps that could be taken to improve these efforts.  

At least 300,000 whales, dolphins and other cetaceans are killed each year as the result of becoming entangled in fishing gear, especially gillnets. Elliott’s paper, which is the first global review of its kind, assesses and categorizes the steps being taken by 14 RFMOs to reduce these numbers.

The findings are not encouraging. Although many RMFOs’ United Nations Convention Agreements call for addressing bycatch of threatened and protected species in their fisheries, few of them have passed binding conservation and management measures focused on cetacean bycatch. No RMFO has adopted measures targeting cetacean bycatch in longlines, and only one has passed a management measure specifically focused on cetaceans and gillnets, widely recognized as the gear type posing the highest risk to cetaceans.

The Nicholas School has presented the Dean’s Awards for Best Graduate Student Manuscript annually since 2008 to recognize excellence in graduate student research.

“I love this award process because I get to read the amazing work that is being conducted by our doctoral students.  The choices are always very difficult, and we had excellent submissions again this year,” Steelman said. “I wish everyone had the opportunity to get this peek into the breadth and depth of work our doctoral students do.”