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Pinto Receives NSF CAREER Award

March 15, 2018

Ameet Pinto, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, received a $504K CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to research the microbial community of drinking water to proactively identify water contamination before it reaches the tap and is consumed by people.

His work will advance the safety of drinking water by integrating microbial ecology into drinking water microbiome research through establishing a long-term observatory to monitor high-resolution drinking water microbiome dynamics in Boston’s water distribution system, and developing models to forecast the abundance and composition of the drinking water microbiome.

“Humans are impacted by infectious diseases spread by pathogenic micro-organisms, several of which can be transmitted through water. With this research we will develop a modelling framework to be able to predict the microbes in drinking water reaching the tap at time points in the future,” said Pinto.

Pinto and his research team at Northeastern are collecting data and water samples from several sites in Boston to determine the microbial community of drinking water in the city. Technologies like high throughput DNA sequencing are being used to quickly establish the entire community in samples. “DNA sequencing existed for a long time, but high throughput and real-time DNA sequencing is what has given this project a boost. The NSF is in support of this research as it has the potential to predict contamination in a very short period of time,” explained Pinto.

The research will predict microbial contamination by developing computer models, which will be fed with data collected from the DNA sequencing. These models will be trained using the data collected and predict the contamination at the tap, which is the ultimate goal. Pinto explained, “We aim to study the spatial and temporal dynamics of the community using two different types of models. One model is a time series model, which will be calibrated to the data we collect, and the other is a classic ecological model often used to study the spatial distribution of the plants and animals, which we will apply to microorganisms.”

Findings of this research have potential to revolutionize the current United States drinking water monitoring system of "detect and mitigate" toward a proactive one of "predict and correct."


Abstract Source: NSF

Every gallon of drinking water contains millions of microbes that are referred to as the drinking water microbiome. Water utilities perform extensive monitoring in the water distribution system to ensure that the drinking water microbiome remains safe as it travels from the water treatment plant to the household tap. Although these monitoring practices are designed for early detection of microbial contamination, any attempt to fix a problem identified by monitoring will be inherently reactionary. This project seeks to revolutionize the current United States drinking water monitoring system of "detect and mitigate" towards a proactive one of "predict and correct". This project aims to develop a computer model that will allow water utilities to predict future microbial contamination events across the water distribution system, thus providing an opportunity to prevent contamination events before they occur. Integrated with the research activities will be an education program that includes training of K-12, undergraduate, and graduate students in state-of-the-art microbiome characterization and interpretation to attract them to STEM careers. The goal of this education program will be to prepare future water scientists and engineers with expertise in microbiome research and practice.

The career development plan will advance the safety and health of drinking water by integrating experimental and computational microbial ecology into drinking water microbiome research and by leveraging this research through education and outreach to engage a diverse student body in microbiome research and practice. The research goals of this project are (1) to establish a long-term observatory to monitor high-resolution drinking water microbiome dynamics in Boston?s water distribution system, (2) to develop a novel framework to apply econometric and ecological models to these dynamics, and (3) to systematically integrate the two modeling approaches for comprehensive spatial-temporal forecasting of the abundance and composition of the drinking water microbiome. The research plan combines state-of-the-art integrated analyses and novel modeling approaches to develop a quantitative predictive framework for the drinking water microbiome. This predictive framework will (1) help water utilities preemptively estimate and eliminate future drinking water microbial risks, and (2) serve as foundational knowledge for model-informed quantitative management of the drinking water microbiome. This research is integrated with an education and outreach plan designed to (1) attract and train undergraduate and graduate students in microbiome research and practice, using pedagogical approaches designed to enhance participation of students from underrepresented minority groups in STEM research, and (2) raise public awareness of the drinking-water microbiome through K-12 initiatives. The objectives will be accomplished by developing innovative microbiome-focused curricula in environmental engineering using a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) approach in collaboration with Wentworth Institute of Technology and Wellesley College and a K-12 learning activity for Boston area students through the Center for STEM Education at Northeastern University. The project will advance the shared aspirational vision of the drinking water research community and the microbiome-centric drinking water quality management community.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.