Biology Graduate Student Stephanie Kunkel Receives Sloan MoBE Postdoctoral Fellowship

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded one of its first MoBE (Microbiology and the Built Environment) postdoctoral fellowships to Stephanie Kunkel, a graduate student in IIT’s biology program.

Kunkel will receive $120,000 over a two-year period to study “Indoor bioaerosol fate, transport and control: Implications for infectious disease transmission.” View for additional information about the study. Brent Stephens, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, is the principal investigator on the project. Krishna Pagilla, professor of environmental engineering, and Ben Stark, professor of biology, are the co-advisors.

The goal of the MoBE program is to grow a new field of scientific inquiry into the complex microbial ecosystems of the built environment, where most people spend an average of 23 hours a day.

Kunkel’s award is one of four to be announced for the initial year of the Sloan program. The other awardees are from Virginia Tech, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Yale University.

Kunkel wrote of the IIT research, “We believe it will provide an improved understanding of how disease-causing microbes and viruses are spread from person to person in the built environment, and how this spread might be attenuated using available technologies (for example, filtering of air by HVAC systems or portable air cleaners). In particular, we hope to develop a method that will model the simultaneous dispersal of a variety of bacterial and viral pathogens, which will add to information from studies that have looked at the dispersal of single organisms.”

Stephens runs the Built Environment Research Group, where he and his students investigate energy efficiency, air quality, and human exposures to pollutants within the built environment. They are currently collaborating with a team at the University of Chicago to characterize building environmental and operational parameters on another Sloan Foundation project, the Hospital Microbiome Project.

Stark and Pagilla are longtime collaborators who have, among other endeavors, described how Vitreoscilla hemoglobin (VHb) can enhance ethanol production in Escherichia coli in a variety of growth media by increasing the oxygen supply. The work is an important step in research in the production of ethanol from biomass. In other research, they, along with Kunkel and graduate student Marina Arnaldos (Ph.D. ENVE ’12), were awarded the Honor Award for University Research by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES) for their research “Improving Energy Sustainability of Wastewater Treatment by Low DO Nitrification Process.” Kunkel is currently a Ph.D. candidate in biology under the advisement of Stark on the same subject.