Anna Robuck, a Ph.D. student at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, was recently chosen as one of 20 environmental scholars to receive a Switzer Environmental Fellowship. The prestigious fellowship, a program of the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation, recognizes promising environmental leaders and provides $15,000 to support their research.
Robuck’s research focuses on a family of contaminants called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). Used as water repellents and flame retardants, PFASs permeate the blood of 98 percent of Americans and nearly every habitat on Earth, yet there are large gaps in our understanding of the occurrence and effects of these contaminants.
“Over 4,000 different PFAS chemicals have been produced by industry, yet only two of these have received appreciable research attention or regulatory action,” says Robuck. “Everyday we are finding PFAS chemicals in new environments with unknown impacts on humans and wildlife.
Robuck, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Nancy Foster Scholar from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is working with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to better understand the bioaccumulation of PFASs in wildlife, specifically seabirds called great shearwaters.
“The phrase ‘canary in a coal mine’ is a truism for a reason: birds are great indicators of the environment,” says Robuck. “By studying PFAS in seabirds like great shearwaters, we get a pulse on PFAS levels in the ocean food webs that support them—the same marine food webs we rely on for nutrition and recreation.”
Another section of Robuck’s impressive resume is her work as a trainee in the Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Superfund Research Program at URI, led by GSO professor Rainer Lohmann. According to Robuck, the Switzer Fellowship will help her tackle PFAS research in marine systems and beyond, by providing mentorship, leadership development and monetary support for research and tuition.
“It’s been a huge boost of confidence to know this amazing organization is investing in me as a leader and researcher tackling this pressing environmental issue,” says Robuck.
Beyond laboratory and field work, Robuck has a passion for communication and community. She acts as the editor-in-chief for oceanbites.org, a scientific blog that translates timely ocean science research for the general public. She also serves on the national steering committee for the Society for Women in Marine Science, which celebrates and supports women in marine science across the globe.
Founded in 1986, the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation is a grantmaking organization that has invested nearly $16 million dollars through the Switzer Environmental Fellowship Program and related grant programs. The Foundation supports a network of over 650 Fellows who are leaders in nonprofit, public policy, business, academic and government sectors working to solve today’s environmental challenges.