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Auburn University researcher selected for NSF’s prestigious CAREER program, seeks to address critical societal issues with new products from engineered biomass

By April 8, 2021February 8th, 2023No Comments

Maria Soledad Peresin, assistant professor of forest biomaterials in the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has been selected for the prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, program.

The CAREER Program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Applicants must be untenured assistant professors at the time of application.

Funding for Peresin’s research, which began in April and will last five years, is expected to total $691,619.

Peresin—recently promoted to associate professor with tenure, effective this fall—aims to unlock the potential of certain components of plant or animal biomass to design engineered biomaterials. To do this, she will work to advance the fundamental understanding of naturally occurring systems to address critical societal issues, such as the removal of emerging contaminants from drinking water.

“I am delighted to be one of the 2021 NSF CAREER Award recipients,” Peresin said. “The proposal was a lot of work, but it was worth every bit of effort in terms of the doors that this grant opens to us. I certainly consider this achievement to be a reward to my entire research team, to whom I am very grateful. Without their hard work, resilience and professionalism, I would have not been able to establish this program.”

At Auburn’s Forestry Products Development Center, or FPDC, Peresin’s multidisciplinary research team gathers expertise in chemistry, pharmacy, materials sciences, engineering and product development to stimulate ideas for new businesses in food, pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical sectors. The team achieves this through the development of novel value-added product development from biomass—including wood, annual crops, agro-forestry and sericulture, among others—focusing on surface modification of nanocellulose fibers for water remediation, macromolecules immobilization and developing composite materials using biobased polymers.

This project will focus on developing and using renewable, natural polymers—chemicals composed of the building blocks of smaller repeating molecules—to design efficient and sustainable absorbents, which are highly porous structures for the removal of contaminants such as antibiotics, analgesics and herbicides from water bodies. Natural polymer systems are inexpensive and could lead to more affordable filtration systems across the globe—increasing the economic impact of this research.

“There is still a lot to do and learn, but this award certainly gives my research program a great boost,” she said.

This program also provides her with an impactful platform for education and contributing to improved science literacy in Alabama. Peresin has established a successful mentoring program within Auburn University that involves internships and exchange programs with Tuskegee University and international institutions, such as the University of British Columbia and KU Leuven of Belgium for both undergraduate and graduate-level students.

Peresin is also a founding faculty member of the Sustainable Biomaterials and Packaging, or BIOP, program at Auburn, which provides another forum for disseminating information, recruiting new students and informally educating others on the utilization of bio-based materials, including its use to address water quality issues.

“This award is a game changer in many aspects, not only for the prestige, but also because of the unique nature of this five-year funding,” Peresin said. “This will allow me to focus on developing my research program in alignment with my education and outreach efforts toward increasing opportunities in STEM for underrepresented minorities.”

Peresin has partnered with Professor Becky Barlow, the school’s Alabama Extension coordinator and the Harry E. Murphy Professor, to disseminate the outcomes of her work through outreach events such as the yearly ForestHER workshop, an educational program for female forest landowners. Additionally, she will work with Auburn High School teachers on developing specific modules to be included in advanced placement biology and environmental sciences classes, with the aim of making them available to the entire state of Alabama through the Alabama Science in Motion program.

Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, said Peresin is at a stage in her career to expand and strengthen the programs with which she is involved through the NSF CAREER Award.

“Dr. Peresin cares about students, their progress and their well-being,” Alavalapati said. “She is a co-lead to promote diversity and inclusion in the school, and her colleagues view her as being fully engaged in her profession and scientific organizations.

“She is the type of professor who climbs to the top of the ladder while being very humble and approachable. Her work is already making a difference in the lives of students and citizens of this country and beyond.”

The NSF CAREER Award opens new doors for both new and existing developments, an exciting prospect for Peresin and those who work with her.

“This funding will enable the consolidation of already established partnerships with national and international research groups and will take the quality of the research we conduct at the FPDC to the next level,” she said.

(Written by Teri Greene)

Maria Soledad Peresin headshot in front of greenery

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