Ian Balcom, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Natural Sciences

The development and application of ecological designs for the management of environmental pollution has been the central focus of my research since my time as an undergraduate at UVM when I investigated the removal of heavy metals from landfill leachate by cattails.   My PhD dissertation research focused on the microbial ecology of plant roots in petroleum contaminated soil. The results of this work indicated the composition of the soil bacteria recruited by plants roots growing in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH)-contaminated soil systems follow a common functional pattern. Three-membered consortia with groups of plant-growth promoters, PAH-metabolizers, and biosurfactant producers were identified on the roots of all the plant species analyzed.

Currently, my lab is characterizing the microbial ecology of pharmaceutical and personal care product (PPCP) removal in Eco-Machines. Coupling PPCP concentration data with culture-independent, “next generation” DNA sequencing characterization of the biome of the multi-phased Eco-Machine has shed some light on the structure and composition of the microbial ecology and PPCP removal processes in Eco-Machines. With ~259 million DNA sequences and the PPCP concentrations of different phases of the Sharon, VT Eco-Machine system we anticipate elucidating the design parameters that will maximize PPCP removal from wastewater, thereby allowing specifically designed ecological reactors to be developed.

The second focal area of my lab is phytotechnologies, which is the application plant-mediated ecological processes to remove pollutants from contaminated air, soil, and water. A current project, funded by the VT Department of Environmental Conservation, is investigating the potential to maximize carbon sequestration while achieving the removal of pollutants from petroleum-contaminated soil. We are investigating the effects of coupling mycoremediation (fungal) and phytoremediation (plant) techniques to restore the contaminated soil here in northeast VT. While this project is currently in the initial stages, the findings are intended to contribute to a more balanced weighting of ecological remediation designs during contaminated site remediation decision-making processes, which I took part in while managing complex environmental projects as a regulator for the states of Vermont, Oregon, and California.

As a teacher, I emphasize participatory learning, critical thinking, and solutions-oriented research when engaging students in complex environmental issues. With an interdisciplinary background in chemistry, environmental toxicology, microbial ecology, and botany, I am uniquely qualified to teach courses that examine the structure and application of complex ecological systems stressed by anthropogenic disturbance. As a teaching professor at LSC, I have sought to engage students in participatory learning through integrating research into many of my courses. I specifically incorporate the application of ecological designs for the management of environmental pollution into a variety of courses. My students have built Eco-Machines (from a 4000 Liter, multiphase reactor to bench-top model systems), constructed and tested biological sand filters, built and tested indoor “living wall” systems, tested the effect of vegetation on indoor air quality, isolated microbial consortia capable of metabolizing recalcitrant pollutants, tested cold-climate green roof design parameters, investigated the mobilization of storm water pollution during spring thaw events, as well as a variety of other projects.

 

Expertise

  • Environmental remediation
  • Phytoremediation
  • Brownfields
  • Superfund
  • Toxicology
  • Pollution
  • Biofuels

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