Marc Edwards named one of Virginia’s Outstanding Scientists

The Science Museum of Virginia and the office of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe have named Virginia Tech faculty members Marc Edwards of the College of Engineering and Shuhai Xiao of the College of Science as Outstanding Scientists for 2017.

Established in 1985 and sponsored by the Science Museum of Virginia, the Outstanding Scientist Award honors scientists who, through their research and commitment to science, have made contributions to scientific research that extends the boundaries of any field of science. A total of 15 Virginia Tech faculty members have been awarded the honor, with three faculty winning the Lifetime Achievement in Science Award.

Edwards, the Charles Lunsford Professor with the Virginia Tech Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has gained international praise for his ongoing work in investigating iron and lead corrosion found in the water of Flint, Michigan, affecting 100,000 residents for more than 18 months.

After being contacted directly by a concerned mother of two who lived in Flint, Edwards and his water study team helped residents conduct an unprecedented survey of water contamination in residents’ homes, with a 90 percent return rate. The results of the survey indicated high levels of lead and bacteria, such as Legionella, in the water supply, contradicting government reports that claimed the murky water was safe.

Edward’s role in uncovering the problem has been widely reported by media from around the world, including The New York Times, Smithsonian magazine, Time, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and Scientific American. More than a decade before making headlines in Flint, Edwards exposed water-quality issues related to pinhole leaks in copper pipes and lead in drinking water of the Washington, D.C., area.

“Marc embodies what many young scientists like myself aspire to be: He is brilliant, humble, and demonstrates a passion for advancing the science of water that is unparalleled. His uncompromising dedication to using and advancing science for the public good is truly inspiring,” said Siddhartha Roy, a civil and environmental engineering doctoral student from Varanasi, India, who nominated Edwards for the award. “Time and again, he has donated his invaluable service to the American people and serves as a public health champion fighting childhood lead poisoning from drinking water across the country.”

Edwards was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008. Among his numerous other accolades are the H.P. Eddy Award from the Water Pollution Control Federation, the 2010 Praxis Award in Professional Ethics from Villanova University, and a Walter L. Huber Civil Engineering Research Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

He was named among the most influential people in the world by Fortune, Time, and Politico, and was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, all in 2016.

Edwards earned his bachelor’s degree in biophysics from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1986 and master’s and doctoral degrees in environmental engineering at the University of Washington in 1988 and 1991, respectively. He joined Virginia Tech in 1997.

A professor of geobiology in the Department of Geosciences and a member of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, Xiao has focused his career on researching life in the Precambrian eon, studying life and environments in early Earth history using paleobiological, geological, and geochemical data. His research has taken him to Australia, China, India, Siberia, and other parts of the world where he studies ancient rocks to illuminate the history of the biosphere.

“He leads through his unwavering high standards for scientific quality, professionalism, and ethics,” said Nancy Ross, department head of geosciences, who nominated Xiao for the honor. “His work is brilliant, substantive and of broad scope that has earned him both national and international acclaim as a scientist.”

Xiao and his research team recently uncovered fossil evidence about major evolutionary transitions, including the rise and early evolution of eukaryotic life, multicellular eukaryotes, and animals. In 2015, he was part of a team to discover fossils of kinorhynch worms – or mud dragons – dating 530 million years old. The historic find filled a huge gap in the known fossil record of kinorhynchs, small invertebrate animals that are related to arthropods. In 1998, Xiao and other researchers discovered 600-million-year-old embryo microfossils in South China, opening a new window onto the early evolution of animals.

He also has helped solve paleoclimatic and geochemical mysteries, such as the impact of massive ice ages on the biosphere and Earth system more than 600 million years ago, the rise of an oxygenated atmosphere and its relationship with animal evolution, and the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere going as far back as 1.5 billion years ago.

Xiao has published more than 180 peer-reviewed articles since 1998, including more than a dozen papers in Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His research, totaling more than $4 million, has been funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the American Chemical Society, and National Geographic Society. He was a recipient of the 2006 Charles Schuchert Award by the Paleontological Society and the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is a Fellow of The Geological Society of America and The Paleontological Society.

In 2010, Xiao received Virginia Tech’s Alumni Award for Excellence in Research from the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, honoring his outstanding research contributions. Recipients are awarded $2,000 each. Xiao earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from China’s Peking University in 1988 and 1991, respectively, and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University in 1996 and 1998, respectively. He joined Virginia Tech in 2003.

Edwards and Xiao, along with a third recipient, William Petri of the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, will be honored at a Feb. 23 dinner at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Co-written by Erica Corder, communications manager for the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.