Assistant Professor Justin Hutchison, one of three engineering faculty to receive national awards granted to early career faculty


Justin Hutchison

Justin Hutchison, assistant professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, won a five-year, $560,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for his research into microbes that can break up chemicals in soil and groundwater.

His research focuses on microorganisms that can break down emerging contaminants. While current research methods rely on culturing microorganisms — and only 5% of such microorganisms in a soil sample can even be cultured — Hutchison is working to broaden the field by examining the proteins of all such microorganisms directly, in the soil itself.

The issue is immense. According to the American Water Works Association, threats to drinking water posed by emerging contaminants could prompt $370 billion in system upgrades — all to treat pollutants that include some so toxic that the EPA issues health advisories for concentrations as low as 0.004 parts per trillion.

Hutchison wants to address this growing threat. By using the same approach used to advance disease-targeting abilities of pharmaceuticals, he aims to identify particularly enzymes that can degrade such chemical pollutants into harmless byproducts.

“This grant is an acknowledgment that biological processes play a vital role in protecting our drinking water supply and that alternatives to our current research methods are needed to advance research in this area,” Hutchison said. “It will play an important role in training the next generation of undergraduate and graduate students to advance sustainable solutions to protect and treat our drinking water.”

CAREER awards are considered among the NSF’s most prestigious, given to about 500 early-career faculty each year with the potential to serve as academic role models in both research and education. NSF expects recipients’ activities to build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.