Gumyusenge wins Doherty Professorship to take on “forever chemicals”

Award for young faculty doing exciting research goes to Aristide Gumyusenge, who will develop thin films for detecting toxins in seawater.

Aristide Gumyusenge, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has been named the Doherty Professor in Ocean Utilization.
The award provides support to young faculty members at MIT so they can use their expertise to benefit the world’s seas. Gumyusenge’s research aims to develop better ways to detect toxic substances called PFAS, “forever chemicals,” in seawater.
“We’re here for a very happy event,” said Michael Triantafyllou, director of MIT Sea Grant, the marine research and outreach program that administers the annual professorship.  Gumyusenge’s research will go a long way toward cleaning up water contaminated by PFAS, he said, “which are insidious everywhere and very difficult to remove.”
Triantafyllou spoke at a small ceremony held at the MIT Sea Grant offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are found in everyday items like nonstick cookware, food packaging, and stain-resistant carpets. They can enter seawater through runoff or wastewater treatment plants and can get into the food chain through marine plants and animals, including fish people eat.
The end goal of Gumyusenge’s research is to build sensors to detect such chemicals for real-world use, “particularly in low-income communities,” according to a press statement.  
Specifically, the work will go into the design and processing of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), porous materials that can soak up chemicals from the water, like tiny sponges. Gumyusenge and his team will try out different combinations of metals and other materials and make them into thin films that can be used in sensing devices.
The next phase is to determine how to grow the films on surfaces of materials used in detection devices. Lastly, the project will aim to “optimize the molecular affinity between MOF films and PFAS,” according to the research proposal submitted to the Doherty program. In other words, ensure that the films are good at attracting and detecting the chemicals.
The new research is based on an earlier study into MOFs, which was supported by an Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, or J-WAFS, seed grant. The focus of that project was to design test kits using MOF films for detecting PFAS in drinking water.
“The two projects are complementary,” Gumyusenge said. “We were so inspired by the preliminary results in the J-WAFS study that we wanted to expand it, delving deeper into materials design and processing to develop highly reliable sensors.”
The Doherty professorship will supply a two-year stipend to fund the research, which will begin July 1.