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Chemistry Doctoral Student Wins NOAA Research Fellowship

Rajaa Mesfioui

Rajaa Mesfioui, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Old Dominion University, has been awarded a NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve System Fellowship supporting her work analyzing organic nitrogen pollution transported by rivers into coastal waters.

Her work on the project will be supervised by her adviser, Patrick Hatcher, ODU's Batten Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences and the director of the College of Sciences Major Instrument Cluster (COSMIC) Lab. A novel part of her work studying dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) at the molecular level will be accomplished by means of COSMIC's ultra-high-resolution Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FT-ICR) mass spectrometer.

Two other ODU scientists, Kenneth Mopper, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Margaret Mulholland, associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, will also advise Mesfioui during the project.

The study will examine how environmental conditions affect the molecular makeup of DON released from natural sources (such as forest runoff) and human-related sources (such as sewage effluent discharges).

Upriver pollution containing nitrogen has long been known to cause degraded ecosystems in the tidal waters into which the rivers flow. This can result in eutrophication, which is a condition characterized by phytoplankton blooms, oxygen depletion, fish kills and other harmful results.

"Eutrophication is a particularly alarming problem in the Chesapeake Bay where nutrient supply due to over-enrichment from natural and anthropogenic sources far exceeds the bay's demand and assimilative supply," Mesfioui wrote in her fellowship proposal.

Dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), which can come from synthetic fertilizers discharged into rivers, is in a form readily taken up by phytoplankton and is a major cause of damaging blooms. Scientists have not been as concerned about DON because they believe this organic nitrogen is not in a form that can be readily assimilated by phytoplankton.

Mesfioui wants to take a closer look at this traditional belief. Might the fundamental makeup of DON change a little as it moves from freshwater rivers into the coastal waters? Might sunlight, salinity and water turbulence be the causes of this change? Might the changes be different depending on whether the DON is from natural or man-made sources? And, most importantly, might these changes to DON make it more available to phytoplankton and help cause blooms?

To answer these questions, Mesfioui will rely upon analysis made possible by the FT-ICR mass spectrometer and a related technique called "electrospray ionization."

Mesfioui will receive $20,000 in support during the first year of the fellowship, which begins June 1, and has also been recommended for a second year of funding.

She received a combined bachelor and master's degree in chemistry from the University of Caddy Ayad in Morocco in 2002, and in 2008 was awarded a master's in chemistry from ODU. She joined the Hatcher Group of researchers in the fall of 2008 and is now a candidate for a Ph.D. in chemistry.

This article was posted on: March 8, 2012

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