Two regional scholarship winners emerge from a single NYU Tandon lab

When Fiona Dunn, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in NYU Tandon’s Department of Civil and Urban Engineering, arrived at a holiday gathering organized by the New York Water Environment Association (NYWEA) to receive a scholarship she had been awarded by the group, she was happily surprised to see a familiar face. There, in his best professional attire, was fellow Civil and Urban Engineering student Ahmed Shaheen, who had also garnered the NYWEA scholarship, bestowed upon exceptional students planning careers involving water quality.

Given that the scholarship competition is open to students from throughout the sprawling metropolitan region, the fact that two of this year’s recipients came from a single school is worthy of note, but Dunn and Shaheen share not only an institution of higher learning but a single faculty lab: both count Assistant Professor Andrea Silverman as teacher and mentor.  

Ahmed and Fiona w Jamie Saxe

Shaheen and Dunn flank Jamie Saxe, Senior Director Xylem Watermark and Corporate Social Responsibility

Silverman’s lab focuses on developing sustainable and appropriate wastewater treatment systems, in an effort to protect public health and environmental quality, and she was one of six Tandon professors to earn a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award in 2019 — hers for a study of the degradation of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment when exposed to sunlight.

Dunn is deeply involved in Silverman’s project, and her winning scholarship application highlighted their ongoing research on the decay of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment due to sunlight. (Silverman’s group aims to better describe what happens in the environment and whether the genes can be inactivated, with the ultimate goal of informing the development of proper monitoring and control systems.) Dunn’s overall interests are in water quality, water and wastewater treatment, and disinfection, and she hopes to use the knowledge and expertise she is gaining in her Ph.D. studies for a career in industry. NYWEA members were not the only ones impressed by her contributions as a student here at Tandon; she recently garnered a competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Shaheen, who will earn a master’s degree in environmental engineering this year, is also an integral member of Silverman’s lab, and he is currently engaged in a project involving the sunlight inactivation of a human-specific virus called crAssphage, which could be used as an indicator for water quality against the risks of contracting gastrointestinal illnesses. 

Growing up in Egypt, as he explained in his winning scholarship application, he learned early on that many households lacked a ready supply of clean, potable water and that farmers were deeply affected during times of draught. “This instilled in me a strong appreciation of water and regulated my consumption,” he wrote. “It was also a major reason as to why I chose to major in environmental engineering with a specialization in water resources.” The NYWEA competition was not the first he has entered: As an undergraduate, he participated in an international Gates Foundation challenge to redesign toilets, and his entry focused on reusing treated wastewater for flushing. “The applicability and the savings on freshwater consumption looked compelling,” he wrote, “and I am now proud to see the Gates Foundation working on compact wastewater treatment units that reach drinking water standards.”

“I’m happy and proud that the members of NYWEA — who include a wide range of engineers, biologists, chemists, government officials, and industry leaders — have recognized Fiona and Ahmed’s promise,” Silverman said. “This affirms the high caliber of students at NYU Tandon and the importance of the contributions they are making — in this case, contributions that could have a significant positive impact on public health in communities around the globe.”