Nishad Jayasundara '05. Nishad Jayasundara ’05.

Nishad Jayasundara, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at Duke University, received the Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award at the 2015 annual meeting Nov. 18-20 of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Jayasundara’s research focuses on understanding how rapid and profound changes in the environment affect the health of ecosystems and, in turn, the well-being of people and animals.

Each year, the Wetterhahn Award recognizes one SRP graduate student or postdoctoral researcher who exemplifies certain qualities of interdisciplinary scientific excellence.

Understanding adaptation to challenging environments

“Inspired by a little mudskipper fish that intersects terrestrial and aquatic life in coastal areas of Sri Lanka, where I grew up, I have always been interested in understanding how organisms adapt to their natural habitat, and how they respond to changes in their environment,” said Jayasundara, who received a doctorate degree in biological sciences from Stanford University in 2012.  “My research at Duke University is focused on understanding synergistic effects of exposure to multiple stressors during organismal development, and how they are manifested later in life.”

Jayasundara is currently studying an estuarine fish, Fundulus heteroclitus, that has become resistant to an ever-present chemical pollutant called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a harmful byproduct of fuel combustion. His interdisciplinary approach integrates studies on the wild fish with biomedical laboratory models, to better understand how the fish respond to pollution and learn more about the mechanisms of toxicity.

“My research has implications for improving our understanding of how developmental exposure to pollutant mixtures may have significant consequences for humans and other organisms, in addition to contributing to studies geared towards remediation of heavily contaminated sites,” said Jayasundara.

Gwen Collman, director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, presents the Wetterhahn award to Jayasundara. Gwen Collman, director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, presents the Wetterhahn award to Jayasundara.

Striving to improve environmental health

“Nishad is highly deserving of the award, because of his great intellect, dedication to environmental health research, passion for collaboration and research communication, innovativeness, and knowledge within the field of environmental toxicology,” said Richard Di Giulio, Ph.D., professor of environmental toxicology and director of the SRP center at Duke University. “His service, passion, commitment, and genuine good-heartedness are exemplary.

Outside of the lab, Jayasundara promotes science education to students underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Within the lab, he has mentored undergraduates, all of whom are on track to pursue graduate education in the biomedical and environmental health sciences. He plans on pursuing an academic career in environmental health research — one that provides a creative learning environment.

“It is my hope that someday I will be able to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Wetterhahn, by becoming a leader in science and a mentor to those who strive to preserve the health of our planet,” said Jayasundara.