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Instructor honored at White House

Tom Purucker presidential award
Dr. Tom Purucker (middle) met with Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (left), and Dr. Glenn Paulson, science advisor to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (right), before heading to the White House to be congratulated by President Barack Obama.

Dr. Tom Purucker, an instructor at the University of North Georgia's (UNG) Oconee Campus, was honored at the White House in April as a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on science and engineering professionals in the beginning stages of independent research careers.

Purucker joined a group of 101 other scientists and engineers in a ceremony at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, during which Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, presented the keynote address. The group then traveled to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama, who thanked them for their outstanding achievements.

"EPA is honored to have dedicated scientists, like Dr. Purucker, who devote their careers to protecting human health and the environment," said Lek Kadeli, acting assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Research and Development. "Dr. Purucker is not only conducting innovative research, but he is also providing the tools and information we need to turn the vision of a healthy environment into a reality for all Americans."

Purucker is a research ecologist in EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory in Athens, Georgia. He received the award for his innovation in creating modeling applications that refine chemical risk assessments, which are important for protecting human health and the environment. His research involves updating mathematical models that are used to predict environmental exposures and effects.

The EPA relies on these models for its pesticide registration process, which must be completed before a pesticide can be sold or distributed in the U.S.

"Dr. Purucker's research is directly contributing to our environment as well as our students," said Dr. Eric Skipper, acting CEO of UNG's Oconee Campus. "Having instructors who are involved in high-impact, personal research fuels the curiosity and creativity of our students, especially when those instructors are able to introduce and connect their students to the research, as he has done."

Purucker, who has taught at the university since 2007, said the positive feedback he experiences between teaching and his research helps him in both areas.

"The classroom and laboratory activities here at UNG have really helped me to be a better science communicator," Purucker said. "The award itself would not have been possible without my involvement on this campus, both in terms of how it has impacted my research and because the White House puts a lot of weight on public service, such as science teaching and mentoring, when selecting award recipients."

He also offers lab and classroom activities that relate to his research, and has been working to expand those applications for future classes. He said his research has occasionally directly benefitted from teaching.

"One of the main lines of research in my lab, examining dermal uptake rates of pesticides as a function of chemical properties and physiological state in amphibians, essentially was inspired by an 'a-ha' moment I had while doing some lecture prep about cellular membrane properties for an intro biology class."

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