Yeghiazarian Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Award

By: Ashley Duvelius

Lilit Yeghiazarian, PhD, received the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for her research in water quality and sustainability.


Lilit Yeghiazarian, PhD and assistant professor in the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science Department of Biomedical, Chemical, and Environmental Engineering, received the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for her research in water quality and sustainability. NSF awarded the University of Cincinnati a grant of $409,641.00 for research project titled, “Integrated Research & Education in Stochastic Systems-Based Watershed Management & Water Safety (SWMS),” which is led by Principal Investigator (PI) Yeghiazarian.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is an NSF-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

Yeghiazarian’s research at UC is truly interdisciplinary. One highly successful project that has recently received much attention and media coverage is focused on development of soft materials for robotic applications in biomedical and environmental engineering. The team includes Yeghiazarian, her husband and collaborator, biomedical engineer Dr. Vasile Nistor, and their Ph.D. student Jarod Gregory. Gregory, who started working with the team as an undergraduate, received the 2014 Goldwater Award for this work. His first published paper has been highlighted in a UC press release, and also selected to feature by the NSF, and in Wiley’s News Round-Up. The Round-Up is sent to over 1,800 subscribing journalists that promotes a selection of the most newsworthy research published across all Wiley’s journals.

The NSF CAREER project is in the area of water quality and sustainability. Yeghiazarian explains, “The leading cause of surface-water impairment in the US is microbial contamination, which can potentially trigger massive outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease. We need to find ways to predict water contamination events, but it is not trivial. The biggest challenge is the random variability of microbes in the environment, coupled with tremendous complexity of natural environmental systems.”

Water quality is not just a national problem—access to clean water impacts the entire planet, so much so that it has been deemed one of the “Engineering Grand Challenges.” Yeghiazarian’s group works to understand the patterns of water contamination in surface waters like lakes, rivers and streams, and to improve watershed management.

UC has extensive expertise in the field of water quality research as it is situated in Cincinnati, a city with a long history of water management and infrastructure development. As a matter of fact, the tri-state area holds the highest number of water-related patents in the US. UC has several long-standing collaborations with well-established water quality organizations such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), the Municipal Sewer District (MSD) of Greater Cincinnati, and Ohio River Sanitation Committee (ORSANCO) and the Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW).

As PI, Yeghiazarian is guiding the SWMS project on various levels. One component is experimental, which includes fieldwork to collect and analyze water samples for contamination. There is also a theoretical component wherein the researchers develop theories, compute sustainability metrics and then use the data to validate their theories. Additionally, Yeghiazarian regularly meets and conducts business with water resources stakeholders.

She adds, “My role is not only that of an idea generator and a writer, but also of a mentor/teacher and a manager who has to work out the numerous logistics of this 5-year project. I also create new courses and workshops for graduate and undergraduate students to help them better understand how to analyze complex environmental processes. My experience at UC leading a large multidisciplinary group of students and regularly teaching classes has prepared me well for this task.”

Using the methods developed by Yeghiazarian’s team, they will derive water resources sustainability metrics that guide watershed management strategies. For instance, they will help understand how quickly microbial concentration in the water at a given location will drop to safe levels, and how severe water contamination was at a any place and time. Yeghiazarian anticipates that, as a result of this research, the design of environmental monitoring and sustainable watershed management strategies will become more targeted in space and in time. This is a very important step forward as it helps reduce the current high cost of managing the quality of our nation’s waters, while simultaneously increasing its efficiency.

Yeghiazarian attributes her success to the support of her students and her colleagues. “I am very fortunate to work with an incredible group of students. We work together, we dream together, and we learn from each other. They are my greatest achievement,” she says. “I am thrilled to have received this award—it is indeed a great honor. I must say that it would not have been possible without the support from my department and college. I am deeply grateful to my fellow researchers who gave me their words of wisdom, exchanged ideas, shared their proposals and critiqued mine. I am very lucky to work in such a great environment.”