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Professor’s Study of Drugs’ Impact on the Environment Receives NSF CAREER Grant

Sheree Pagsuyoin’s Research Is Supported by $513K Award

Asst. Prof. Sheree Pagsuyoin working with a grad student in the lab at Perry Hall Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
Civil and Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Sheree Pagsuyoin with graduate student Jiayue Luo in Pagsuyoin’s Emerging Pollutants Laboratory at Perry Hall on North Campus. Here, they are performing solid-phase extraction of drugs from sewage samples.

01/30/2020
By Edwin L. Aguirre

Civil and Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Sheree Pagsuyoin’s research on the impact of drug abuse on the environment has been recognized by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a prestigious national faculty early career development award. 

Called the CAREER award, this highly competitive annual program selects the nation’s best young university faculty-scholars who, according to the NSF, “most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.”

Pagsuyoin, who joined UMass Lowell in 2015, will use the CAREER award, worth $513,000 spread over a period of five years, to support her research project, entitled “Environmental Fate and Ecosystem Impacts of Drugs of Abuse in Receiving Waters.”

“My research focuses mainly on the impact of residual drugs on our ecosystem – specifically, the aquatic ecosystem,” says Pagsuyoin.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), New England is considered to be a hotspot of the opioid crisis in the U.S., with high rates of drug consumption and drug-related deaths. This includes prescription drugs such as fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, codeine and morphine, as well as illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine and MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy or molly).

“This comprehensive study is the first of its kind in New England,” says Pagsuyoin. “There’s a number of studies going on in Europe, Australia and Asia, but not so much here in the United States. We don’t have a lot of data on this issue.”

For the study, Pagsuyoin and her graduate students, Jiayue Luo and Akarapan Rojjanapinun, will concentrate on the Merrimack River, which runs through New Hampshire and Massachusetts. “The Merrimack River is the sole water source for nearly 600,000 people and is the only major river in New England that is used as a drinking water source,” says Pagsuyoin.

If a person uses drugs, the drugs in his or her body would eventually end up in the sewage. Most wastewater treatment plants cannot fully remove these drugs, so they end up in receiving streams, she notes.

“Our project will look at what happens to the drugs when they get discharged into the ecosystem. It will help answer questions such as what amount of drugs are actually present in the water, and how fast or how slowly they degrade in the ecosystem. Even if the drugs somehow degrade, if you have a continuous, increasing source of drugs, then they would appear to be persistent in the environment,” Pagsuyoin explains.  

She adds, “We will also try to understand how the drugs affect the microorganisms in the water. We’re not specifically looking at the effect of the drugs on fish. That’s the subject of a future research project.”

Throughout her career, Pagsuyoin has used her background in chemical engineering and environmental engineering to help solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns.
Environmental Engineering Asst. Prof. Sheree Pagsuyoin working with a grad student in the lab at Perry Hall Photo by Edwin L. Aguirre
Pagsuyoin and graduate student Akarapan Rojjanapinun will use a membrane filtration system to determine the effectiveness of carbon-polymer composites in removing chemical pollutants called PFAS from drinking water.

In 2016, she collaborated with researchers from De La Salle University in Manila, the Philippines, and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to investigate the use of the seeds of Moringa oleifera, a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree widely cultivated in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America, for treating and disinfecting contaminated water used for drinking and cooking. They found a way to combine the seed’s protein with activated charcoal to act as a filter medium for creating a low-cost, portable biofilter.

Last November, Pagsuyoin and her co-researchers from UMass Lowell and the University of Rhode Island applied for a federal grant to study the effects of PFAS on the oyster industry in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. PFAS is a group of manmade chemicals, used in manufacturing industries, that are now widespread and very persistent in the environment and in the human body. These pollutants do not break down, and they can accumulate over time, potentially leading to adverse health effects. The team’s grant application is currently under review.