Environmental Sciences and Engineering Research

Interdisciplinary Fields Of Study

The wide scope of departmental research is reflected in the three interdisciplinary fields of study, faculty’s areas of research, and affiliated labs and research institutes. The three interdisciplinary fields of study are:

ESE_airforwebAir Quality & Atmospheric Processes
Atmospheric processes have a major influence on air quality, as well as on long‐term global processes such as climate change. Over the past 30 years, major research contributions of our faculty and students include the generation of an experimental database used to develop and test photochemical mechanisms that contribute to air pollution; development of methods to measure and monitor airborne contaminants; and the development and application of occupational exposure models.

ESE_exposureforwebHuman Exposure & Health Effects
Our faculty study the range of processes that ultimately lead to environmentally related diseases, from characterizing and quantifying human exposure to understanding the cellular, molecular and biochemical underpinnings of these diseases. Major research activities include: developing methods to measure and monitor chemical or microbial contaminants; and elucidating the genetic factors that lead to differences in disease outcomes among individuals or populations.

ESE_waterforwebSustainable Water Resources
Population growth and economic development continue to place increasing stress on global water resources, stresses that stem primarily from rising consumptive demands for limited supplies and increasing contamination of natural waters. Our faculty seek solutions to these challenges using a variety of computational, experimental, and field approaches. Our research results improve engineering applications and provide substantive guidance to policymakers.

The table below shows how the three interdisciplinary fields of study intersect with individual faculty interests and focus areas of research.

Interdisciplinary Fields Of Study

Focus Areas:

Air Quality & Atmospheric Processes

Human Exposure & Health Effects

Sustainable Water Resources

Design and Analysis
of Engineered Systems

Exposure Biology, Biomarkers and Mechanisms of Disease

Global Environmental Health

Impacts and Mitigation
of Climate Change

Policy, Decision-Making
and Risk Assessment

Faculty and Their Areas of Research

Below is an alphabetical listing of the faculty in Environmental Sciences and Engineering together with brief descriptions of their research interests and links to more information.

ESE_Pic_AitkenMichael Aitken
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Professor Aitken’s research focuses on the application of microbial processes to the biodegradation of organic pollutants and to waste treatment problems. A current focus is on the use of molecular biological techniques to identify and quantify microorganisms capable of degrading specific chemicals in complex systems. He has also conducted research to evaluate the inactivation of microbial pathogens during treatment of wastewater sludge.
ESE_Pic_BallL. M. Ball
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Professor Ball’s research focuses on interactions between chemicals and living things at the molecular level, specifically on the metabolic transformations undergone by chemicals in the body (xenobiotic metabolism) and on the reactions between chemicals and cellular macromolecules that lead to DNA and protein modification. These interactions are key to the toxicity of chemicals, and understanding them is crucial to evaluating the health effects of environmental agents. DNA and protein adducts are also valuable as indicators (biomarkers) of exposure. Thus my research directly addresses the molecular mechanisms that link exposure with health. Specific chemicals that I am particularly interested in include air pollutants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and their substituted derivatives), occupational hazards (diisocyanates), drinking water disinfectants and their by-products, and agents that generate reactive oxygen species.
ESE_Pic_BartramJamie Bartram
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Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor Bartram’s research interests focus on the connections between water (including sanitation and hygiene) and health – especially the links between science, policy and practice in both developing and developed countries. His research activities include technologies for urban sanitation renewal; management systems for drinking-water supply and quality; emerging issues (including climate change) and their impacts on system sustainability; health system impacts on water and sanitation; and sector capacity such as in assessing costs and impacts and effective regulation and financing.
ESE_Pic_BodnarWanda M Bodnar
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Research Assistant Professor Bodnar’s research interests include the development and application of analytical methods for the quantitative and qualitative analysis of surrogate markers of exposure, disease, and drug treatment. Her expertise is bioanalytical mass spectrometry and she has several years of experience using this technology to analyze both small molecules and larger biomolecules. Her laboratory, the Biomarker Mass Spectrometry Core Facility, routinely collaborates with investigators from multiple disciplines to develop assays and analyze samples of an environmental and/or biological nature. Current projects include the assessment of DNA and protein adducts as markers of oxidative stress, DNA damage, or chemical exposure, the identification and quantitation of oxidative and phase II metabolites from in vitro and in vivo studies, and the characterization of reaction products and intermediates.
ESE_Pic_CharacklisGregory Characklis
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Singer Distinguished Professor Characklis’ primary research interests involve integrated planning of water supply and treatment strategies through the consideration of both engineering and economic criteria. Specific areas of interest include developing minimum cost strategies for water-related infrastructure, managing water supply risk and the impacts of water quality on resource value. He also directs several laboratory and field studies that explore issues related to microbial fate and transport in surface waters.
ESE_Pic_CoronellOrlando Coronell
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Assistant Professor Coronell studies basic and applied aspects of water and energy where membrane technology plays a central role. Dr. Coronell’s main focus areas are membrane processes for (i) water desalination and reuse, and (ii) energy generation and storage using salinity gradients . Currently, research focuses on advancing the understanding of the mechanisms of transport of water, salts, and other solutes through membranes, the development of new and improved membranes, and the optimization of membrane processes and systems.  Such work involves wet chemistry, polymer synthesis, materials characterization at the nanoscale, use of state-of-the-art membrane systems, and mathematical modeling of membrane performance.
ESE_Pic_FlynnMichael Flynn
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Professor Flynn is interested in the development and application of mathematical models of human exposure to airborne contaminants in occupational environments. Current efforts focus on welding exposures and their relationship to neurodegenerative diseases.
ESE_Pic_FryRebecca Fry
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Associate Professor Fry’s lab uses environmental toxicogenomics, toxico-epigenomics and systems biology approaches to understand the mechanisms of arsenic-induced carcinogenesis. A broad goal is to identify the genes and their encoded proteins that protect (or sensitize) humans to arsenic-induced disease. Our research employs state-of-the-art technologies including next generation sequencing to understand genome-wide consequences of arsenic exposure. The lab studies arsenic-exposed populations with varied disease outcomes to identify signaling pathways that are differentially modulated in response to exposure. A major goal of the research is to identify mechanisms of prevention of arsenic-induced disease.
ESE_Pic_MacDonald GibsonJacqueline MacDonald Gibson
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Associate Professor MacDonald Gibson’s research focuses on constructing mathematical models that can be used to assess the impacts of alternative policies on environmental quality and public health. This often involves quantifying the human health risks associated with environmental contaminants on land and in water, with particular emphasis on problems related to global environmental health, decision-making and risk assessment. This research is conducted with the intent of comparing the costs and benefits of alternative policy strategies for environmental protection in order to choose the optimal set of strategies.
ESE_Pic_GoldAvram Gold
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Professor Gold’s research involves oxidative damage to the DNA base guanine by 2-electron oxidation pathways. Such damage is initiated by exposure to xenobiotics that are epoxidizing agents either directly or as a result of metabolism and subsequent reaction cascade. Our laboratory also functions as part of the Chemistry Core component of Superfund and in this capacity synthesizes standards labeled with stable isotopes and performs structural characterizations for the program projects. This work is related to research into identification and quantitation biomarkers of exposure or toxicity resulting from environmental exposures.
ESE_Pic_JaspersIlona Jaspers
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Professor Jaspers (primary appointment in Pediatrics) uses various human lung cell in vitro models as well as animal and human in vivo models to study the adverse health effects of air pollutant exposures. Current efforts include examining mechanisms by which exposure to air pollutants modify lung cell biology and physiology and whether these changes modify the susceptibility to viral infections.
ESE_Pic_KolskyPete Kolsky
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Professor of Practice Kolsky’s primary responsibilities are in graduate and professional teaching, but he has some involvement in departmental research. His primary interests are in urban and rural sanitation in the developing world, maximizing public health benefits from water and sanitation projects in the developing world, practical monitoring systems and approaches to evaluation to improve the quality of water and sanitation services, and how best to support water and sanitation service providers in low-income communities on technical and management issues.
Kun Lu ENVR_facultyphoto_Kun Lu_2015
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Assistant Professor Lu’s research focuses on understanding the health effects of environmental exposure and individual response by integrating the microbiome, exposome, omics, and biomarker development. Dr. Lu’s lab is working on a number of important environmental chemicals ranging from heavy metals to pesticides, as well as others with significant public health concerns.
ESE_Pic_LuettichRick Luettich
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Professor Luettich’s (primary appointment in the Institute of Marine Sciences) research deals broadly with modeling and measurement of circulation and transport in coastal waters. His modeling has emphasized the development and application of unstructured grid techniques that are optimized for geometrically complex systems such as sounds, estuaries, inlets and inundated regions and for high performance computing architectures. He has co-developed the ADCIRC circulation and storm surge model that is widely used by the academic, government and private sectors and has been applied extensively for modeling storm surge in the New Orleans areas as well as much of the US East and Gulf coasts. He is also active in interdisciplinary modeling studies such as physically mediated larval dispersal and water quality. His measurement activities have focused on process based studies in coastal waters, often to understand the role of physics in areas of water quality (e.g., phytoplankton blooms, dissolved oxygen depletion) and fisheries recruitment. His autonomous, vertical profiling, observational system has provided novel data on high frequency anoxic water upwelling, diel vertical plankton migration and wind driven mixing in shallow NC sounds.
ESE_Pic_MillerCass T Miller
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Okun Distinguished Professor Miller’s research involves the study of complex, multiphase or multimedia, environmental systems using theoretical, computational, and experimental means. Most of his work focuses on fluid flow and contaminant transport in subsurface systems. His research group is active in the development of subsurface remediation technologies for dense nonaqueous-phase liquids (DNAPLs) as well as numerical methods, stochastic analysis, and computational science.
ESE_Pic_NakamuraJun Nakamura
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Research Associate Professor Nakamura’s interests focus on investigating mechanisms of DNA damage response to endogenous and exogenous reactive agents. The reverse genetic approach provides a powerful method for the study of gene function and regulation. DT40 cells originated from a chicken B-lymphocyte line and their knockout mutants are observed to show a strong phenotypic resemblance to murine mutants. Using a series of isogenic DT40 knockout mutants with high-throughput format, we determined that cells deficient in the FANC/BRCA pathway and homologous recombination are hypersensitive to formaldehyde at concentrations found in human plasma. Until that time, formaldehyde had been determined to cause DNA-protein crosslinks but little was known about how such lesions are repaired. Our results suggest that the use of syngeneic mutant cell lines, which is a very modern technology, is capable of deciphering the physical causes of DNA damage that are missed by more classical technologies. Indeed, the use of syngeneic lines to the analytic ability of toxicology is worthy of interest to more than simply the DNA repair field. Dr. Nakamura is also interested in synthetic lethality caused by poly(ADPribose)polymerase inhibitors and their translational research.
ESE_Pic_NobleRachel Noble
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Professor Noble’s (primary appointment in the Institute of Marine Sciences) research program bridges environmental microbiology and marine microbial ecology. A main thread of Dr. Noble’s work is the application of novel molecular techniques for applied and basic science. She has developed a range of rapid water quality test methods, including those for E. coli, Enterococcus, and Vibrio species and studies the dynamics of microbial contaminants contributed through stormwater runoff to high priority recreational and shellfish harvesting waters. A specific interest is conducting research to partition anthropogenic inputs from reservoir populations in coastal ecosystems, thereby permitting development of accurate models. In addition to applied research, Dr. Noble is interested in the dynamics of marine microbial food webs, specifically focusing on viral control of bacterial and algal populations, and the interplay among viruses, bacteria including Bdellovibrio), phytoplankton, grazers, and biogeochemical cycling in estuarine and coastal marine environments, especially in light of impending climate change.
ESE_Pic_Nylander-FrenchLeena Nylander-French
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Professor Nylander-French’s research and teaching focuses on (1) understanding the relationship between dermal and inhalation exposure, (2) the effect of individual genetic differences on the function of enzymes that detoxify hazardous agents and that affect the development of disease, and (3) new scientific approaches to quantitatively measure exposure to toxicants and sophisticated exposure-modeling tools in an effort to standardize and improve exposure and risk assessment. The long-term objective of her laboratory and field investigations is to identify factors, which contribute significantly to the risks of disease in populations, so that intervention and prevention controls can be implemented to reduce unacceptable levels of risk.
ESE_PIC_PaerlHans W. Paerl
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Kenan Distinguished Professor Paerl (primary appointment in the Institute of Marine Sciences) conducts research in microbially-mediated nutrient cycling and primary production dynamics of aquatic ecosystems, environmental controls and management of harmful algal blooms, and assessing the causes and consequences of man-made and climatic (storms, floods) nutrient enrichment and hydrologic alterations of inland, estuarine and coastal waters. His studies have identified the importance and ecological impacts of atmospheric nitrogen deposition as a new nitrogen source supporting estuarine and coastal eutrophication. He is involved in the development and application of microbial and biogeochemical indicators of aquatic ecosystem condition and change in response to human and climatic perturbations. He heads up the Neuse River Estuary Modeling and Monitoring Program, ModMon (www.unc.edu/ims/neuse/modmon) and ferry-based water quality monitoring program, FerryMon (www.ferrymon.org), which employs environmental sensors and various microbial indicators to assess near real-time ecological condition of the Pamlico Sound System, the USAs second largest estuarine complex.
ESE_Pic_PiehlerMichael Piehler
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Dr. Piehler studies microorganisms and microbially mediated processes in coastal land-water interfaces (particularly wetlands) and near-shore waters. His research spans a broad range of microbial systems including microphytobenthic communities, epiphytic microalgae, benthic bacterial communities, bacterioplankton, and phytoplankton. The land-water interface is an area of intensive biogeochemical cycling and trophic interactions involving microorganisms. It is also an area of extensive human activity, making the interactions of pollutants and native microbial communities in the land-water interface a significant issue in developed coastal environments.
ESE_Pic_SerreMarc Serre
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Associate Professor Serre is interested in the development of space/time statistical methods to model the distribution of environmental and health processes, and their application in exposure mapping, disease mapping, environmental epidemiology and risk assessment. His interests in the application of these methods to study problems of air pollution and their health effects include the use of active and passive samplers to monitor air pollution at the community level, the development of land use regression models for air quality, the integration of monitoring data with air quality model predictions, and the use of spatial regression techniques to measure the strength of associations between air pollutants and health endpoints such as cardiovascular mortality, asthma, malodor, and quality of life.
ESE_Pic_SingletonDavid Singleton
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Research Assistant Professor Singleton’s research focuses on microbial communities, particularly bacteria, involved in the biological removal of contaminants in terrestrial systems. His work utilizes culture-independent, molecular methods alongside traditional isolation techniques to identify organisms of environmental importance, particularly those enriched during bioremediation of contaminated soil in engineered systems, and to study the physiology and genomics of those identified bacteria. He has a particular interest in novel organisms that have thus far eluded conventional cultivation attempts.
ESE_Pic_SobseyMark D. Sobsey
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Kenan Distinguished Professor Sobsey studies human exposure to and health effects from pathogens (disease-causing) microbes in water, food and other environmental media to which people can become exposed in the developed and developing word. An important focus of this research is to combine microbial detection of pathogens (and microbial indicators for them) in these media with human health effects studies (such as diarrheal disease prevalence and incidence) in populations exposed to these media in order to quantify disease risks and burdens, devise and evaluate interventions to reduce these risks, such as water treatment processes that reduce pathogen, and use this information to conduct risk assessments and inform policy decisions for risk management. Hence this research shifts the axis of the University to work that informs integrated environmental decision-making and influences State, national and global policy on water, sanitation and health.
ESE_Pic_StewartJill Stewart
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Associate Professor Stewart is developing novel techniques to detect and track pathogens in water. She is also interested in evaluating impacts of non-point source pollution, and in evaluating the manner in which human activities (development, stormwater management) can affect their exposure to microbial contaminants. Overall, this research is leading to a greater understanding of how environmental conditions can affect human health, and how humans themselves influence this process.
ESE_Pic_SurrattJason Surratt
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Associate Professor Surratt uses advanced mass spectrometry and chromatographic techniques to understand as deeply as possible the atmospheric chemistry that occurs in the gas and particulate phases, with special focus on the chemistry leading to formation of secondary organic aerosol (SOA) and to the ageing of organic aerosols. Over the last five years, he has helped to elucidate the chemical pathways leading to organic aerosol formation from the atmospheric oxidation of isoprene, which is the most abundant non-methane hydrocarbon emitted annually into the Earth’s atmosphere that was previously thought not to contribute to SOA formation, in the presence or absence of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and acidified sulfate aerosols. Professor Surratt will continue to chemically characterize both laboratory generated SOA and ambient organic aerosol collected from locations around the world in order to uncover sources of SOA formation in the troposphere. Since numerical models currently underestimate the amount of SOA mass observed in fine aerosol collected from urban locations, improvements in our fundamental understanding of the detailed reaction mechanisms leading to SOA formation are still needed. Professor Surratt’s research will require the combination of gas- and particle-phase mass spectrometric measurements to be made in order to more fully elucidate chemical formation mechanisms of SOA; these chemical measurements will be coupled with toxicological measurements in order to identify potential sources of human health effects.
ESE_Pic_SwenbergJames Swenberg
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Kenan Distinguished Professor Swenberg’s laboratory focuses on understanding mechanisms of toxicity, with emphasis on chemical carcinogenesis. Our primary focus relates to determining the molecular dose of a chemical or its metabolites that covalently bind to DNA or proteins using LC-MS/MS. In addition to direct binding of chemicals, we examine endogenous DNA damage arising from oxidative stress. Most recently, we have found that the molecular dose of adducts has a vastly different quantitative relationship at low exposures, compared with biomarkers of effect such as micronuclei and mutations in reporter genes. This has major implications for low dose cancer risk assessment.
ESE_Pic_TurpinBarbara Turpin
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Professor Turpin’s research is designed to reveal fundamental processes needed to accurately predict human exposures and effects of airborne particles from precursor emissions. She is best known for her work on the formation of organic particulate matter through aqueous chemistry (e.g., in clouds), organic sampling artifacts, and modification of the ambient air pollution mix with outdoor-to-indoor transport. She works to facilitate communication between atmospheric, exposure and health scientists with the ultimate goal of effective public health protection.
ESE_Pic_VizueteWilliam Vizuete
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Associate Professor Vizuete uses high performance computers and three-dimensional simulations to model the atmosphere with a focus on understanding the chemistry of pollution formation. These computer models provide insight into the complex interaction of chemistry and physical processes that ultimately produce air pollution. A significant part of Dr. Vizuete’s work focuses on providing technical expertise to state and federal policymakers who are developing pollution reduction strategies. Through this work, he is able to provide objective scientific analysis for policies that will affect the health of millions of people. Dr. Vizuete is also interested in the chemistry of aerosols and Linking atmospheric chemistry to health effects.
ESE_Pic_WeinbergHoward Weinberg
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Associate Professor Weinberg’s research group develops analytical methods for evaluating the occurrence, fate, and transport of chemicals that might compromise water quality and threaten public health. His recent work has focused on developing methods for the analysis of endocrine-disrupting compounds, including hormones and other pharmaceuticals, disinfection byproducts in drinking water, and chemical byproducts formed during municipal wastewater treatment.
ESE_Pic_WestJason West
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Associate Professor West is interested broadly in the problems of air pollution and climate change, and researches the science and policy Links between these problems. He uses global models of air pollutant transport and quantitative methods of policy analysis to consider interrelated problems: the effects of air pollutants on climate change, the inter-continental transport of ozone and particulate matter, the effects of air pollution on human health, and the effects of energy technologies on future air pollution and climate change. His research aims at building the tools to analyze mitigation of air pollution and climate change in an integrated manner, considering both industrialized and developing nations.
ESE_Pic_WhalenStephen C. Whalen
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Professor Whalen’s interests include nutrient cycling dynamics and productivity in aquatic and forested environments and agroecosystems. He also studies the exchange of chemically and radiatively important trace gases between soils and the atmosphere and their potential impact on global climate change, and he has conducted research on the impacts of animal waste application to soil at industrial swine farms.
ESE_Pic_WhittingtonDale Whittington
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Professor Whittington is an environmental and water resources economist with research interests in nonmarket valuation methods. His research focuses on the political economy of international rivers such as the Nile and the Ganges. He also works on water supply and sanitation policy issues in less developed countries.
ESE_Pic_WoodsCourtney Woods
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Dr. Woods is an alumna of the Environmental Sciences and Engineering Department at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She has broad interests in the field of environmental health, including ethics, global health, minority health, cancer, and diabetes.
Zhenfa Zhang
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Research Assistant Professor Zhang integrates synthetic chemistry and analytical techniques into many areas of research in environmental sciences in order to understand the chemical reaction behind the transformation of organic pollutants and their health effect.

Labs and Centers

The Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering houses a number of research laboratories which are located in the Michael Hooker Research Center, Rosenau Hall, McGavran-Greenberg Hall and the Baity Building, as well as off-campus research facilities. In addition to experimental and field laboratory settings, the department houses labs for modeling and computational analysis of environmental systems, such as atmospheric circulation and air quality models; ground and surface water flow and transport models; fluid flow and contaminant transport models for indoor air environments; exposure analysis and health effects; risk assessment; and environmental epidemiology.

The labs and centers contain state-of-the-art equipment and offer opportunities for students to supplement classroom learning with valuable research experience.

Most faculty run their own laboratories, and you can explore their labs by visiting their individual profiles on the website.

Please browse our list of Institutes, Centers, Affiliates, and Friends here:

The Water Institute at UNC (within the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering)
Superfund Research Program
Engineers Without Borders
ENVR Student Organization (ENVRSO)
Chancellor’s Science Scholars
ESE Design Center
Biomarkers Mass Spectrometry Sub-Core
Bayesian Maximum Entropy (BME) Lab
UNC Institute for the Environment
UNC Environmental Resource Program (ERP)
UNC Department of Marine Sciences
UNC Institute of Marine Sciences
UNC Curriculum in Toxicology
Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility (CEHS)
Occupational and Environmental
Exposure Science (OEES) Program

North Carolina Occupational
Safety and Health Education
and Research Center (NC OSHERC)
UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center
Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology
Center for Galapagos Studies