Nerenberg named CAREER Award recipient

by Nina Welding

Robert Nerenberg

Robert Nerenberg, assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, has been named a 2010 National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development (CAREER) Award recipient. The CAREER program, established by the NSF in 1995, is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to young faculty in engineering and science.

A faculty member since 2004, Nerenberg’s research centers on biofilm processes in environmental engineering, especially for water and wastewater treatment. For example, he and his research team have developed a novel wastewater treatment process, the Hybrid Membrane-Biofilm Process (HMBP), that reduces energy requirements by up to 50 percent and minimizes emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas.

Nerenberg’s CAREER project, titled “Dynamic Structure and Function of Biofilms for Wastewater Treatment,” uses a novel research platform combining microsensors —bacteria tagged with an anaerobic fluorescent protein — and confocal laser scanning microscopy, to determine the dynamic behavior of bacterial biofilms. The new platform will be used to study the effects of biofilm detachment and re-growth, as well as sudden shifts in nutrient concentrations, on the biofilm microbial community structure, activity and N2O emissions. This research is directly relevant to biofilms in wastewater treatment but may also enable research on industrial and clinical biofilms.

Several educational components were included in this CAREER project. For example, Nerenberg will work with Hispanic students in local schools, encouraging them to pursue careers in engineering and science. He is well suited for this task, given his 14 years living in Argentina, where he obtained his secondary and undergraduate education. He also will train local high school teachers to use simple molecular tools and help them develop teaching modules for their students. In addition, a pilot undergraduate research exchange program with the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile will be initiated as a means to provide collaborative international research experiences for undergraduate and graduate students.

Nerenberg is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Society for Microbiology, American Water Works Association, International Water Association and Water Environment Federation.

Nerenberg received his doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from Northwestern University in 2003 and his bachelor’s in civil engineering from the University of Buenos Aires in 1990.