Two Marshall University researchers are partnering with colleagues at Murray State University and the University of Kentucky on a $3.8 million National Science Foundation grant to study toxic algae blooms.

Funds from the four-year grant will provide advanced environmental sensor systems, train students and faculty in their use, and help apply the sensors to solutions for an emerging environmental problem common in both states.

Dr. William Ford

Dr. William Ford is an assistant professor of engineering and one of the Marshall researchers working on the project.

He said harmful algal blooms, or Cyano-HABs, have been identified as a water quality threat in West Virginia and Kentucky, impacting drinking water and irrigation sources, as well as energy production.

“Although much world-wide attention recently has been focused on harmful algal blooms, the causes of blooms are not well understood,” he added. “Rapid changes in land use, the effects of climate change on precipitation quantity and distribution, and increasing human population pressures on energy production complicate studies done to date.”

Ford said the 33 new sensors provided through this grant will allow the researchers to monitor water chemistry, weather conditions and other factors for the purpose of developing predictive models that can better explain and forecast conditions leading to toxic algae blooms.

Dr. Jeffrey Kovatch

The other Marshall researcher is Dr. Jeffrey Kovatch, associate professor of biological sciences, who said another important aspect of the project is to provide mentoring of early career faculty and undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students from the region.

“This research will provide workforce training in the region by educating and training faculty and students in the use of new water quality, modeling and environmental engineering technologies,” said Kovatch. “Another advantage is that the scientific collaborations resulting from this research will forge working relationships that will endure beyond the project.”

Denise Barnes, head of the NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, said, “These awards represent a tremendous value for the scientific community, as they foster research into some of the most pressing issues facing U.S. society while simultaneously supporting collaborative research programs and workforce development. Whether by expanding our knowledge of the brain, or by improving how our water, food and energy systems work efficiently together, these projects hold the promise of transforming our daily lives.”

Dr. Wael Zatar, dean of Marshall’s College of Information Technology and Engineering, said, “It is a true pleasure to support these two outstanding faculty members. Their initiative and the spirit of cooperation they have shown by partnering with colleagues from a variety of backgrounds is an inspiration. I salute them and look forward to the results of their work.”

College of Science Dean Dr. Chuck Somerville added, “Multidisciplinary research is becoming increasingly important in today’s interconnected world and this project is a wonderful example of scientists from different disciplines and institutions cooperating on research that will help address a common problem for people in our region.”

Other investigators associated with the grant include Dr. David White and Dr. Susan Hendricks of Murray State University and Dr. James Fox of the University of Kentucky.