In 2020 Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T), Environmental Science & Technology Letters (ES&T Letters), and the ACS Division of Environmental Chemistry (ENVR) launched a new environmental prize, the Outstanding Achievements in Environmental Science & Technology Award, to recognize change makers, whose research and service contributions to the fields have substantially supported improvements in human health […]

In 2020 Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T), Environmental Science & Technology Letters (ES&T Letters), and the ACS Division of Environmental Chemistry (ENVR) launched a new environmental prize, the Outstanding Achievements in Environmental Science & Technology Award, to recognize change makers, whose research and service contributions to the fields have substantially supported improvements in human health and/or the environment. Read on to watch newly created videos celebrating their important work.

In the inaugural year of the Outstanding Achievements in Environmental Science & Technology Award, the journal is focused on the Asia–Pacific region, where environmental changes are palpable, the opportunities for innovation are profound, and the value of strong collaboration is highlighted. Please join us in congratulating the winners of the 2021 Outstanding Achievements in Environmental Science & Technology Award: Professor Guibin Jiang from the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China, and Professor Shu Tao from the College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, China. Professor Jiang and Professor Tao are decided agents of positive change within the environmental science and technology community.

I spoke with the recipients to find out what the award means to them.

Professor Shu Tao, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, China

What does this award mean to you?

I take this award as not only recognition of my previous work but also motivation for my future research in the field.

What have been some of the key influences that have shaped how your career has developed?

I spent five years in northeast China as a farmworker during the Cultural Revolution. Although I missed the opportunity to study in high school as a teenager, I learned many things which are not taught in school, such as optimistic thinking, persistence to your long-term goal, how to manage time, and how to work with others. Five years of graduate study at the University of Kansas really opened my eyes to modern science.

What do you consider some of the most important highlights from your career so far?

This award is definitely one of the most important highlights. Others include my admission to the undergraduate program at Peking University in 1973 and graduate school at the University of Kansas in 1980, acquirement of the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars in 1994, the publication of my first ES&T paper in 1999, and my first PNAS paper in 2009, winning the National exemplary teacher award in 2001 and Teaching Achievement Awards of Peking University in 2019, election as a member of the Chinese Academy of Science in 2009, and invitations to serve as the chair of SETAC Asia/Pacific in 2008 and an associate editor of ES&T in 2015.

What motivates you to be a researcher in this field of environmental science & technology?

Frankly, I did not really have an opportunity to choose. I went to the countryside after graduation from secondary school during the Cultural Revolution, and I did not even have the chance to go to high school. When Chinese universities re-opened in 1973, there was an opportunity for me to study at Peking University. However, I was not allowed to pick a major subject, and the only choice was Physical Geography and Environmental Protection. This also happened to be the very first university program in the environmental field in mainland China. If I had been allowed to choose, mathematics or electronics would have been my top choices. Over these years, I have learned that environmental science is such a multidisciplinary field, and I can still choose what areas I want to work in. That is why I am so interested in the application of statistics and modeling in my research.

Environmental science is close to people’s lives, and one can almost immediately see the significance of your research. For example, one of my focused areas is indoor air pollution associated with solid fuel use in rural households in China. One of the motivations was my early experience in the countryside in the Northeast of China. During those five years, we used wood fuel for heating for almost six months each year and had no idea that the rather “fragrant” room-filling smoke is toxic. Unfortunately, many households in rural areas are still not aware of the impacts.

Describe your current area of research (or areas of interest).

My current research focus is an integrated study of the emissions, transport, exposure, and health impacts of air pollutants, particularly PM2.5, with the goal of developing cost-effective mitigation actions. We have compiled global emission inventories of major air pollutants, with an emphasis on the residential sector and based on an extensive field survey of energy use and emission measurements. The highly source-resolved inventories provide us with the opportunity to evaluate the contributions of specific sectors and fuels to health and climate impacts.

What are the major challenges in this area, and what type of work can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

The major gap of the study is how to model indoor exposure at a regional scale. At this stage, the only approach is a simplified model by categorizing households with major energy types and assigning mean concentrations to each category. We are now working on a better strategy to improve the model. Although we do have a general idea, the hypothesis needs to be tested based on a large volume of field data to be collected. The recent development in low-cost sensor technology can also surely help us to achieve this goal. Another difficulty is the fact that many stakeholders do not regard this area as an important one. In comparison with ambient air pollution, household air pollution and impacts are under-supported and not well studied. It is very likely that the contributions of indoor air pollution attributable to solid fuel use are equal, if not more important, than those of ambient air pollution from other sectors. More studies are required to improve our understanding of this field.

What is your advice for young investigators?

Keep your curiosity and follow your heart.

Explore articles published by Professor Shu Tao here.

Professor Guibin Jiang, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China

What does this award mean to you?

I believe this award is a recognition of the outstanding contributions of Chinese scholars in the research on persistent toxic substances (PTS), which include, but are not limited to, the legacy and novel persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and emerging pollutants. Research related to POPs in China started in the mid-1970s, but early studies mostly focused on the analytical monitoring and environmental occurrence of polychlorinated biphenyls, DDT, pesticides, and herbicides. In 2001, 179 countries and regions, including China, joined the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. It reflects the international attention on the adverse effects of POPs and also marks the change of world-wide action on chemical management from a retrospective response to more proactive action.

When I was invited to set up the first ES&T Asian Office by the former Editor-in-Chief Professor Jerald Schnoor in 2005, articles from China only made up a small proportion of the journal publications. With the rapid advancement of fundamental and applied research within environmental analytical chemistry, environmental pollution chemistry, environmental toxicology, and environmental engineering, Chinese scholars working in this field currently contribute to approximately 40% of the manuscripts processed in ES&T every year. Our research increased the public and policy makers’ awareness about chemical pollution and facilitated the implementation of the Stockholm Convention and Minamata Convention in a scientific manner in China.

What have been some of the key influences that have shaped how your career has developed?

I think the primary impacts would be the development of key scientific issues in environmental chemistry and China’s environmental protection needs. During the past several decades, environmental protection research has experienced a gradual progression from the treatment of conventional air pollutants (such as sulfur dioxide, industrial dust, etc.) and water pollutants (e.g., chemical oxygen demand), and heavy metal pollution control, to the reduction of POPs and emerging pollutants.

During my Ph.D. and post-doctoral studies, I was mainly engaged in speciation analysis of heavy metals and organometallic compounds. I developed several hyphenated techniques based on chromatography and atomic spectrometry. Field studies in the Chinese Bohai Sea indicated that organotin compounds were probably the inducers of imposex to the marine mollusk. The cellular proteasome was found to be the main molecular target for organotins.

With the increasing concern about persistent organic pollutants, I began to study POPs with the first funding for “Environmental Risks of Key Toxic Chemical Pollutants” supported by Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 1997. Then, my project entitled “Speciation and Environmental Fate of Toxic Chemicals” was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation (NSFC) for Distinguished Young Scholars in 1998. In 2000, the first State High-Tech Development Plan (863) project on “Screening and Control Techniques for Environmental Endocrine Disruptors” was supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China (MOST). As the chief scientist, we unified the Chinese expression, connotation, and scope of the new scientific term “Environmental Endocrine Disruptors” from the very beginning. In 2001, my colleagues and I established the Dioxin Laboratory in our research center, which has been recognized as a “Pilot Laboratory” for POPs Analysis by the United Nations Environment Program.

The most influential program for my career occurred in 2003 when I chaired the first National Basic Research Program (973) of POPs. This program has been continuously supported by MOST for over 15 years: Professor Zheng Minghui chaired this program when I was appointed as the national committee member of 973 at the end of 2011. This program greatly promoted the research progress of POPs in China and also promoted international collaborations in this field. In 2001 and 2002, our group started to focus research on emerging pollutants such as the quantitative structure activity relationships (QSAR) of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and the distributions of the polyfluorinated compound perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in human blood from different Chinese cities.

In 2006, I proposed our research direction move towards the screening and identification of emerging pollutants, with our first paper on the discovery of tris-(2,3-dibromopropyl) isocyanurate (TBC) near a manufacturing plant in southern China was published in ES&T in 2009. Our project “Speciation, Environmental Processes and Toxicology of Persistent Toxic Substances” was supported by Innovative Research Groups of the NSFC in 2006. Afterward, the project “Environmental Interface Processes and Bioavailability of Typical Persistent Organic Pollutants” was supported by the Major Program of NSFC in 2008. In recent years, I proposed and patented the “Integrated Toxicology Analyzer” and applied it to high throughput screening of targeted pollutants and identification of potential contaminants in environmental samples. It will be a very useful platform for chemical risk assessment.

My work in the past 20 years has evolved as a broad scientific spectrum from environmental sample pre-treatment to new principles and technologies. The analytical methods that I have developed have provided a solid foundation to improve environmental monitoring. My research has encouraged and boosted POPs studies in China to keep up with the development of advanced laboratories in the world. Through these studies, we obtained critical technical support for the implementation of the Stockholm Convention in China and helped shape public opinion about the impact of environmental contaminants in China. I have been recognized as one of the leading scientists in the field of environmental pollution and health associated with organometallics, POPs, PM2.5, nanomaterials, and chemical hazards.

What do you consider some of the most important highlights from your career so far?

Environmental chemistry research in China was initiated by pioneering researchers, especially from Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences (RCEES) and many other universities, who creatively filled the knowledge gaps on pollutant characterization, environmental levels of pollutants, the fate and transport and effects assessment with the aid of advanced techniques in environmental analytical chemistry.

Our group was the first to report the occurrence, residue levels, and potential impacts of the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and Hexachlorobutadiene (HCBD) in the Chinese environment (in 2005 and 2014), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) in the serum of the populations in major Chinese cities (in 2006), the discovery of short chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs) in the Chinese environment (in 2009), and identification of a novel heterocyclic brominated flame retardant TBC (in 2009). Systematic breakthroughs have also been made in the fields of ultra-trace detection and characterization methodology, contaminant fate, and transport characteristics, exposure pathways and exposure prediction, toxicology and health effects, and pollutant abatement technologies.

Through more than a decade of continuous research, we have identified approximately 161 new chemical structures in the environment from approximately 17 chemical functional use categories, including brominated flame retardants, polyfluoroalkyl substances, endocrine disruptors, heteroatomic additives, and disinfection by-products, that have not previously been reported in the literature. The research results have been published in more than 80 papers in ES&T, which prompted domestic and international peers to conduct further in-depth research and also provide technical support and a decision-making framework for China’s implementation of the Stockholm Convention on POPs and emerging pollutants.

During the past 20 years, I have been invited to give plenary or keynote speeches more than 650 times at important international conferences, universities, and institutes. I have chaired many top conferences and symposia, including the 8th, 9th, and 10th National Conference on Environmental Chemistry with more than 8000 participants in 2019, the 43rd International Symposium on High Performance Liquid Phase Separations and Related Techniques with 600 participants in 2015, and the 29th International Symposium on Halogenated Persistent Organic Pollutants with 1,046 participants in 2009. In 2004, I launched the International Symposium on Persistent Toxic Substances, which has been hosted successfully in the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and China and is now recognized as an important international symposium. Because of this work, I was awarded the State Award of Natural Science three times (2003, 2011, and 2018) and the prestigious Chang Jiang Scholars Achievement Award in 2007.

What motivates you to be a researcher in this field of environmental science & technology?

Environmental science and toxicology was an emerging and multidisciplinary area with great challenges and opportunities for innovation in the later part of the 20th century. As a result of fast economic growth, China is facing a complex problem of environmental pollution. Due to the characteristics of China’s economic structure and, in particular, its chemical enterprises, the environmental exposure and health effects of pollution are significantly different from those of other countries, so it is impossible to copy foreign research models and methods. When we established our state key laboratory of environmental chemistry and ecotoxicology in 2005, our efforts were focused on three major challenging research directions: environmental analytical methodology, environmental process, and toxicological health effects.

The screening of priority pollutants for chemical management, emergency treatment of environmental pollution incidents, high-throughput assessment of the toxic effects of chemical mixtures, and the relationship between pollutant exposure and disease are among the primary scientific issues related to human health and sustainable development. My undergraduate major at Shandong University was analytical chemistry, and I got my master’s degree and Ph.D. in environmental analytical chemistry at the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences (RCEES, CAS). These learning experiences are of great help to my research in this field.

Describe your current area of research (or areas of interest).

Curiosity is the driving force of science. The main area of my research is focused on the identification, fate, exposure, and health effects of persistent toxic substances. Other areas of interest involve chemical speciation analysis, analytical instrument innovation, environmental toxicology, and the impacts of nanomaterials. In recent years, our group established an isotope tracing technique for mercury, silver, copper, and silica. This research direction has fostered the growth of a strong research team and promoted the advance of environmental sciences and toxicology. We also want to understand the health consequences caused by PM2.5 and emerging pollutants.

What are the major challenges in this area, and what type of work can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

After four decades of rapid economic development, China released the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) on November 6, 2020, which listed the national goal of “emphasizing emerging pollutant control” for the first time in our history. The Five-Year plans are official decision-making documents, setting economic goals, and defining development targets. This topic, therefore, received the same priority as other environmental prevention actions such as coordinated control of atmospheric fine particles and ozone, waste treatment, and market-oriented trading of carbon emission rights. The Ministry of Eco-Environment of China has begun the establishment of a national monitoring network for POPs currently listed in the Stockholm Convention (including 12 legacy and 18 new pollutants), with multiple activities including laboratory capacity-building, standard method establishment, and national surveys. This is a huge undertaking considering the large-scale operations involved to ensure successful implementation.

One of the major challenges is the rapid increase in the number of synthetic chemicals that may cause adverse health effects. Synthetic chemicals can be regarded as man-made chemicals that are not (commonly) occurring in nature, and many have contributed to a better quality of life for us. On the other hand, exposure to a vast number of chemical mixtures is one of the major threats to human health. Among the 46 thousand substances in the Inventory of Existing Chemical Substances of China, at least 4 % of the chemicals possess persistence, bioaccumulation, and long-range transport (P-B-LRT) properties that meet the POPs criteria. These chemicals are analogs of known pollutants in their molecular structures, and the majority of these have not yet been studied in detail.

In addition, unexpected sources of emerging pollutants make the selection of priority pollutants even more complicated. For instance, the phase-out of bisphenol A (BPA) resulted in the increasing use of alternatives that showed similar adverse effects. Recent use of pigments in consumer products was found as the ubiquitous source of re-emerging 3,3′-dichlorobiphenyl (PCB-11) contamination.

It is indispensable to provide accurate identification of novel contaminants and early warning signals of adverse ecological and human health effects, to complete life-cycle analysis of priority chemicals, and to formulate green chemical design principles by combining innovative artificial intelligence and integrated toxicology strategies. It is also essential to join the progressive international efforts to promote a prospective action on chemical risk assessment and to support the sustainable development of the chemical industry. In this regard, our recent powerful, high throughput, and multifunctional Integrated Toxicology Analyzer (ITA) will be put into use soon. It is expected to be a very useful platform based on mass spectrometry on-line coupled with cell culture testing, which has proved suitable for the risk assessment of atmospheric particulate matters, river water, and sediment, manufacturing plant effluent, indoor dust, natural products, chemical products, traditional Chinese herb medicine and different chemical toxicants.

What is your advice for young investigators?

Achieving success in scientific research is inevitably difficult, but there may have some general experiences for reference. First, find and solve current key scientific issues that are oriented to public needs or are at the frontiers of science and technology. Second, every young investigator should try to form their own research characteristics and be brave enough to explore uncharted territories. Last but not least: think big, act small.

Explore articles published by Professor Guibin Jiang here.

Read more about the winners in this editorial in Environmental Science & Technology.

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