As of this spring, Amy Pruden, the W. Thomas Rice Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been named as a University Distinguished Professor, a rank conferred by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors at its March 2021 meeting. The award is one of a number of recent honors Pruden has received, including the Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Research Excellence and her naming as a 2020 International Water Association Fellow.

Pruden joined Virginia Tech in 2008 and has since been widely recognized for her work documenting antibiotic resistance genes as environmental contaminants, bioremediation of environmental pollution, environmental impacts of nanotechnology, and microbial ecology of drinking water systems.

“We’re thrilled that the university has chosen to recognize Amy with this distinguished honor,” said Julia M. Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. “She is a pioneer in her field who has championed a hybrid approach to microbial science and environmental engineering that translates into a real and continued impact for communities. Moreover, she is a teacher and mentor who epitomizes Ut Prosim, someone who models teamwork, inclusiveness, and collaborative approaches to complex challenges.”

Pruden’s projects span many areas of research, but have one goal in common: tracking and analyzing contaminants that influence public health.

“I have always been a believer that you have to find your place in this world and do your part,” said Pruden. “For me, tracking DNA in the environment was my calling. I hope that the work that we have done can move us toward a future where there is less disease and less human suffering as a result.”

She works with a team of researchers and international collaborators to use next-generation DNA sequencing to examine disease outbreaks through water. Her team’s recent projects include creating an antibiotic resistance surveillance approach to apply DNA sequencing techniques to detect the spread of disease in watersheds impacted by large-scale storms.

She also used these techniques to examine Legionella strains and how they operate before, during, and after outbreaks in various towns and cities across the country. Studying real-world outbreak conditions in Flint led to some breakthrough findings about how water supply, pipe materials, and water chemistry changes can lead to Legionella outbreaks.

Legionella
Amy Pruden examines Legionella strains and how they operate before, during, and after outbreaks across the country.

In 2020, when COVID-19 began spreading throughout the United States, Pruden and civil and environmental engineering professor Peter Vikesland, knew there was a way to use their expertise to potentially maintain the public health on Virginia Tech’s campus. By testing wastewater at 15 campus sites for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, they enabled the university to more rapidly identify and respond to positive tests by detecting virus clusters in campus buildings. This methodology grew out of a previous project targeted at tracking antibiotic resistance by monitoring sewage. The team is continuously learning more about these processes in hopes to adapt them to monitor other viruses and markers in the future.

“We want to build a platform not just for the pandemic, but flexible for future pandemics and global health threats,” Pruden said in a Virginia Tech News story about the effort.

She was also part of a team that was recently awarded a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build a cyberinfrastructure system, known as CI-WARS, for monitoring wastewater treatment plants for possible antibiotic resistance outbreaks over time. 

“Dr. Pruden’s international reputation and scholarly impact are a testament to her leadership in her discipline and her many communities of practice,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “Her impactful work using molecular biological tools to study the dynamics of environmental systems continues to gain momentum.”

Two people collect a sample of wastewater
Amy Pruden (kneeling) and Peter Vikesland examine a wastewater sample for the presence of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Photo by Dawn Jefferies for Virginia Tech

“Amy’s pioneering work in environmental engineering and microbiology continues to distinguish and position Virginia Tech as a global land grant institution,” said Virginia Tech’s Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke. “I congratulate her and her fellow University Distinguished Professors for their achievement and their commitment to transdisciplinary collaboration and faculty leadership at Virginia Tech.”

Throughout Pruden’s career, her research has resulted in more than 175 peer-reviewed manuscripts and book chapters on bioremediation, pathogens, and antibiotic resistance. She teaches a variety of courses in civil engineering and environmental engineering microbiology.

In just the last year, Pruden has been recognized numerous times for her work, including her naming as a 2020 International Water Association Fellow and the 2020 Recipharm International Environmental Award Winner, in addition to receiving the Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Research Excellence. Prior to 2020, she was recognized with the Virginia Tech College of Engineering Outstanding Graduate Student Mentoring Award, the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research, and the Paul L. Busch Award by the Water Environmental Research Foundation.

Pruden earned her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a doctoral degree in environmental science from the University of Cincinnati. Prior to joining Virginia Tech, she was a faculty member at Colorado State University.