Mercury inputs into the atmosphere worldwide have increased several-fold over the past 150 years and this dramatic trend, says Mae Gustin, requires a shift in thinking to avoid the grave consequences of mercury poisoning. Through her research, Gustin has stepped up to this challenge and contributed to new scientific understanding of atmospheric mercury and other pollutants, including how they are measured and how they move through the air.
In recognition of her significant scientific contributions, Gustin, a Foundation Professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, has been named the 2018 Nevada Regents' Researcher of the Year.
Gustin started with the University in 1994. As she recently explained to Nevada Silver & Blue magazine, she joined a team involved with DRI working on the Carson River Mercury Superfund Site, a 50-mile site originally contaminated with mercury during the Comstock mining era of the mid- to late-1880s, when mercury was used to process gold and silver ore. In time, Gustin's interest became increasingly focused not just on the mercury contaminated soil and wildlife itself but specifically on how that mercury then evaporates into gaseous elemental and oxidized mercury and becomes an atmospheric contaminant.
"It's bizarre," Gustin told Nevada Silver & Blue. "For a long time, we thought that temperature was what caused mercury emissions from soils, but what we found is that when a cloud would come over one of our instruments measuring mercury evaporation, the mercury release would go down. What we figured out was that it is light, not temperature, that drives these emissions."
In the case of Nevada, with more than 250 sunny days a year, this discovery meant that mercury in the soil might evaporate into the air, where wind gusts might push it anywhere in the state - or beyond because "air is a global pathway," as Gustin explains - and then redeposit and contaminate more ecosystems and wildlife.
A faculty member in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, Gustin identifies her primary research interest as the study of inorganic contaminants in the environment, with a particular interest in regional and long-range transport of air pollution, and how air moves in complex terrains. Over her career, Gustin has published more than 150 peer-reviewed journal articles and made nearly 200 presentations at national and international conferences. She served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Transport of Air Pollutants, a member of the National Atmospheric Deposition Network Scientific Advisory Board, a panel member at the National Science Foundation and as associate editor for the high-impact journal Science of the Total Environment. She also managed the Nevada Rural Ozone Initiative, a large project that measured ozone and other air pollutants across the state of Nevada.
"Her work is consistently rooted in conceptual models that she develops when planning projects, is characterized by creative approaches to conducting experiments and consistently results in high profile publications," Bill Payne, dean of CABNR, said of Gustin, who was twice recognized as CABNR's Researcher of the Year and was named the University's Outstanding Researcher in 2016.
A significant example of the international impact of Gustin's work came in 2015 when her research on the release, measurement and impact of mercury in the atmosphere was considered by scientists and scholars working to develop a United Nations treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from the release of harmful mercury compounds.
"With science as her platform, Dr. Gustin has explored often controversial concepts," Mridul Gautam, the University's vice president for research and innovation, said.
University President Marc Johnson is quick to note another dimension of Gustin's career: "Mae is an outstanding researcher, and she is also an inspiring and accomplished teacher. There are many environmental scientists who credit their careers to Mae Gustin's mentorship, and this, too, is part of her legacy."
Note: Curtis Vickers, writer for Nevada Silver & Blue, contributed to this story. His feature profile of Mae Gustin's research appears in the magazine's 2018 summer issue.