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University of Delaware professor wins Powe Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities

Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), a consortium of 98 Ph.D.-granting universities, has selected Holly Michael, assistant professor of geological sciences in the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, to receive the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award.

The competitive award, which provides $5,000 from ORAU and $5,000 in matching funding from the faculty member's university, is intended to enrich the research and educational growth of young faculty and result in new funding opportunities.

Michael is one of only 32 recipients of the award nationwide for the 2010-2011 academic year from a pool of 114 applicants.

"Each participating university may submit only two nominations each year for the ORAU Powe Award, which is reserved for promising young researchers," says Cordell Overby, UD's associate provost for research and representative to ORAU. "We are very proud of Prof. Michael's accomplishment and look forward to great things from her in environmental research of critical interest to all of us."

The award will support Michael's research related to eutrophication -- the nutrient overloading from land runoff, septic systems, and other sources that fuels excessive primary production in aquatic ecosystems. As algae grow rapidly and then decompose, they deplete the oxygen in the water, causing fish kills and other problems.

Michael's focus is the groundwater that flows into estuaries. This hidden source of water, coming from below the ground, is a major pathway for nutrient transport. However, little is known about how groundwater interacts with surface water beneath the seafloor and the chemical changes that occur in the groundwater's nutrient payload before entering the sea.

At a study site near Holts Landing in Delaware's Indian River Bay, which has experienced severe eutrophication problems in the past, Michael and graduate student Cristina Fernandez will be monitoring fluxes of groundwater and levels of nitrogen, a major nutrient, at several wells installed in ancient river channels (paleochannels) on the seafloor. The wells, up to 80 feet deep, are equipped with sensors that continuously log salinity, temperature, and depth.

Their objective is to identify the subsurface zones in which mixing occurs due to the tides and help determine the extent to which nutrient chemical transformations are occurring.

The project will augment a larger research effort led by Michael and supported by the National Science Foundation to determine how geology and hydrology affect the amount of bioavailable nutrients contributed by groundwater to Indian River Bay on a seasonal basis. That research involves UD graduate students Fernandez and Chris Russoniello, senior scientist Scott Andres at the Delaware Geological Survey, and colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Toledo.

"Coastal estuarine ecosystems throughout the world are increasingly threatened by eutrophication caused by excess nutrients introduced by human land use and rapidly growing coastal populations," Michael says.

"The ORAU Powe Award is great -- it gives faculty a boost, providing extra funding for our research," Michael notes. "I'm really happy about receiving the award because it enables me to extend my study to another facet of coastal eutrophication and support a graduate student on the project this summer."

Michael has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in hydrology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She conducted postdoctoral research at the U.S. Geological Survey and at Stanford University prior to joining the UD faculty in 2008.

In addition to her work in Delaware's Inland Bays, Michael also is researching the vulnerability of groundwater to coastal sea-level rise in Bangladesh as part of a larger World Bank effort to understand the potential effects of climate change on food security in that country.


Contact: Tracey Bryant
University of Delaware

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