Anne Galyean: World Class Trailblazer

April 3, 2014

Environmental sciences and engineering doctoral candidate Anne Galyean is forging new paths in nanochemistry. She is also a world-class downhill mountain biker.

Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it grew out of her upbringing in Idaho by a family that encouraged creativity and curiosity. Or maybe it’s a one-in-a-billion, seemingly random mixture of both nature and nurture, with a dash of something else that has yet to be definitively quantified. Whatever the components and their unique combinations, the result is a completely rare mixture of intensity, curiosity, commitment, intelligence, heightened competitiveness and a relentless drive in the pursuit of exceptionally challenging goals.

In short, it’s a perfect personality paradigm for a world-class scientist – or a world class athlete.

Galyean Lab (Delorme photo)

Anne Galyean, doctoral candidate, Environmental Sciences and Engineering, in her lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Delorme)

True to form, Anne Galyean decided to embrace the paradigm and pursue such challenges. In both areas. Simultaneously.

Galyean, a doctoral candidate studying nanochemistry in the environmental field at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, is also Anne Galyean, who earned a spot on the 2013 U.S. Downhill Mountain Biking World Championship Team.

“This might be a good place for my favorite quote,” Galyean says. “One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

The quote, by Albert Einstein, is treated more like a credo than inspiration by Galyean. Her longstanding interest in environmental issues spurred her to use her undergraduate chemistry degree as a platform to bring about positive change in an area that could affect public health locally and globally – drinking water. Her ideas had coalesced around the burgeoning field of nanotechnology.

Anne Galyean, doctoral candidate, Environmental Sciences and Engineering. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Delorme)

Anne Galyean, doctoral candidate, Environmental Sciences and Engineering. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Delorme)

“I had hoped to study silver nanoparticles as a potential drinking water disinfectant,” she says. “It became pretty clear, however, that a lot of the basic science about engineered nanoparticle fate and transport in the environment had not been done.”

So Galyean decided to do it herself. This meant she needed to find a doctoral program that would be willing to let a candidate run with a pioneering initiative in burgeoning area – not an easy task. Then she met Howard Weinberg.

Weinberg, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School, specializes in aquatic chemistry and has made a career examining the sources and fates of pollutants in surface and groundwater, as well as potential remediation efforts. Using nanotechnology to further these aims was not part of his current area of study, but he was intrigued by Galyean’s ideas and her scholarship. It wasn’t long before he moved from “intrigue” to “extremely impressed.”

“Anne has consistently shown exceptional organizational skills, has very mature insights, and is creative, both in the classroom and in the research laboratory environment,” Weinberg says. “Only an analytical chemist of Anne’s caliber would be able to take on the challenge to find a way to quantify engineered nanoparticles in our water.”

Through Weinberg’s lab, Galyean was able to establish a collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland to do the lab work necessary to test her hypotheses regarding nanoparticles. There was just one problem: no one at NIST had ever done this, either.

So Galyean decided to move to Maryland and do all the work herself as part of her doctoral study.

“I know of few PhD students who would uproot themselves from the security of their academic environment to complete their dissertation research in a government laboratory in another state where she knew no one and would have no other students to interact with,” Weinberg says.

Not only did Galyean do this; she committed to the opportunity completely.

“Anne has gathered, learned and critically analyzed the most complete collection of literature pertaining to characterization of nanoparticles in environmentally relevant matrices,” Weinberg says. “Other scientists hadn’t been able to find a way to quantify engineered nanoparticles in our water. Thanks to Anne’s research and leadership, this is likely to be achieved within a year.”

Despite all this, in whatever spare time she could find, Galyean also had been riding her bike – and training and racing, albeit judiciously.

Anne Galyean, doctoral candidate, on the pro mountain biking race circuit, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Delorme)

Anne Galyean, doctoral candidate, on the pro mountain biking race circuit, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Delorme)

“Doctoral research is definitely a fulltime job,” Galyean says. “While other athletes are able to train for hours and hours a day, I don’t have the luxury. So I’m constantly trying to train more efficiently.”

This means starting her day at 6 a.m. with one-and-a-half to two hours of endurance work, high-intensity training or a gym workout. It also means fitting in a ride later in the day if the weather, sunlight and her schedule allow.

“Sometimes I’m able to leave work at 5 p.m., other times it’s 10,” she says.

There’s also strict adherence to diet. Galyean follows a straight-edge lifestyle – which means no alcohol or drugs. Even when she is able to fit training and racing into her schedule, other challenges are a feature of downhill mountain biking’s landscape. The gist of the sport is to ride down what are essentially hiking trails or trails at ski resorts in the fastest time possible. Bad falls are inevitable, as are broken bones.

“Broken wrists or leg casts can’t stop her drive, enthusiasm and commitment, all of which are infectious,” Weinberg says.

Yet, despite the truncated training schedule, the fulltime academic work and the injuries (she missed all of the 2012 season because of torn ligaments in her hand, which required reconstructive surgery), Galyean won the 2013 USAC’s Pro GRT series, taking first place finishes in three of the seven races and placing third in another. The feat is even more impressive considering it was her first full year of racing the series.

“This sport is a difficult one in that financial support is hard to come by,” she says.  “Gear sponsorships are wonderful, but they don’t pay the bills to get to the races. There have been races when I had to camp in the parking lot and then drive back home the next day, or even the night after the race. There were a few I couldn’t ride in because I couldn’t get there and back in time for work.”  

So when she rode, she almost always won. Her success led to an invitation to travel to the World Championships in South Africa as a member of the U.S. National team. Galyean was honored, but she had to pass.

“I made the team but I had just gotten a brand new instrument in the lab, I needed to get a paper out, and I just didn’t feel like I could be away from school for that long,” she said. “I had work to do.”

Instead of defending her championship this year, Galyean will be defending her dissertation this fall, which has led her to change to enduro racing, which involves multiple timed sections over mixed terrain. Falls are still possible, but the risk is reduced since the speeds and danger are less pronounced than in downhill racing. Since there are more races, it also will be easier to work around her schedule when time permits.

After she finishes her doctoral studies, Galyean wants to continue racing, but even more, she is looking for a great postdoctoral position so she can continue her research.

“Anne has the drive, energy, intelligence and curiosity that will make her a paramount scientist,” Weinberg says.

For her own part, Galyean is anxious to take on those next big challenges.

“I’m still very interested in nanotechnology for environmental remediation,” she says. “After years of method development, the application focus holds great appeal. I’m on the hunt for opportunities that fall into this realm, either in exploring new materials for use in remediation, investigating how different materials affect contaminants, or onsite field work studies. Nano applications in the energy sector are also very interesting to me, like semiconductors and fuel cells.  Of course, the ideal opportunity would present itself in the Rocky Mountain west or Pacific Northwest, where I can be closer to my family – and to stellar mountain biking locations.”