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Maria Sepúlveda receives Purdue Agriculture Research Award

Maria (“Marisol”) Sepúlveda, professor of ecology and natural systems and associate head of research for the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, has been selected to receive Purdue University’s 2018 Agriculture Research Award. The award has been presented annually since 1982 and is the highest honor recognizing research excellence by a faculty member in the College of Agriculture.

To qualify, scientists must demonstrate a high level of excellence in the application of scientific principles to the solution of important scientific problems. Additionally, they must make significant contributions to agriculture, natural resources, and the quality of Hoosier lives.

Sepúlveda has published 140 peer-reviewed publications, researched in 30 countries, and mentored more than 50 Purdue students.

An award presentation will take place on Oct. 12 where Sepúlveda will receive a plaque, $1,500 honorarium, and $10,000 for her research program.

“I couldn’t have been recognized with this award if it wasn’t for the amazing support I’ve received from my department and from the hard work of all of my students,” Sepúlveda says.

The daughter of a physical chemist in Santiago, Chile, Sepúlveda received a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine degree from Universidad de Chile. She then studied at the University of Florida, where she earned her master’s degree in wildlife ecology and a Ph.D. in toxicology and veterinary sciences.

Sepúlveda is now an international leader in the area of ecotoxicology and aquatic animal health. Her research examines the non-lethal effects of contaminants in the environment. The effects include changes in development such as reproduction and growth. Sepúlveda’s methods utilize molecular tools to understand how chemicals exert their effects.

Sepúlveda’s current focus is on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs), man-made chemicals that persist in the environment and can cause adverse health effects in an ecosystem.

Her team is determining toxicity reference values for PFASs in amphibians such as frogs, toads and salamanders. They document how the chemicals alter growth, metamorphosis, and survival.

“Basically these bonds are indestructible,” says Sepúlveda. “They’re the strongest bond in nature, carbon and fluorine. These chemicals are out there now, everywhere. We don’t know how to get rid of them. We don’t know how long they persist for. These are final products, so bacteria cannot get rid of them.”

Sepúlveda’s lab also garnered attention for a recent study involving zebrafish and atrazine, led by principal investigator Jennifer Freeman, an associate professor in Purdue’s School of Health Sciences. Atrazine is the second most common herbicide in the United States and the most common chemical contaminant found in U.S. water supplies. Sepúlveda’s team discovered that atrazine has lasting effects on zebrafish populations from generation to generation. The experiment exposed parent zebrafish to atrazine. While the first-generation offspring were unaffected, adverse health effects from atrazine manifested in the second generation.  

“Dr. Sepúlveda continues to push the boundaries of knowledge for wildlife and aquatic organisms and their response to contaminants, diseases and environmental stressors,” says Shawn Donkin, interim associate dean for research and graduate education. “Her research engages a spectrum of innovative approaches, modern molecular tools, and unique cross-disciplinary collaborations to address significant real-world problems for agriculture and natural resources.”

When asked to reflect on her career accomplishments, Sepúlveda says: “I do my research and I love it, but the students are driving it. They are the ones running the experiments, collecting the data, and I really work hard to make sure that they leave with a very good understanding of what it is to do good science. I strive to do the mentoring well because that’s really what I feel is my most important contribution to my career. To train people so they can go out into the world.” 

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