Michael F. Hochella Jr., a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Geosciences, recently was honored with two academic honors: the Geochemical Society Clair C. Patterson Award and the American Chemical Society Geochemistry Division Medal.

Hochella retired from Virginia Tech in 2018 and is now a research scientist and Laboratory Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. He was given the title of University Distinguished Professor by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors in 2007, and the emeritus version of the same title in 2019. He still retains a joint appointment with the Virginia Tech College of Science.

“The selection of Mike Hochella as the recipient of two major geochemistry awards this year marks a fitting and well-deserved recognition of someone who’s had a huge impact on both geoscience and Virginia Tech,” said W. Steven Holbrook, a professor and department head of geosciences. “Beyond founding and leading two major centers in nanoscience, Mike left a large legacy in our educational program, having advised more than 40 graduate students and postdocs.”

Among Hochella’s more notable papers is a November 2019 study that focused on incredibly small particles of an unusual and highly toxic titanium oxide found in coal plant atmospheric emissions and ash which can cause lung damage in mice - and therefore likely humans - after a single exposure, with long-term damage occurring in just six weeks. The paper was co-authored with Irving Coy Allen, a professor with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, with collaborators from across Virginia Tech and researchers at the University of Colorado, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, and East China Normal University in Shanghai. 

Published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Immunology, the study followed research headed by Hochella that found burning coal — when smoke particles are not captured by high-end filters currently found in U.S. power plants — emits tiny particulates known as titanium suboxide nanoparticles into the atmosphere. Such nanoparticles were found by Hochella’s team of scientists in ash collected from city streets, sidewalks, and in ponds and bays in and around U.S. and Chinese cities during an earlier 2017 study.

The titanium oxide research resulted in Hochella being awarded the highest honor in the field of environmental geochemistry: the C.C. Patterson Award by the Geochemical Society, the most prestigious geochemistry society in the world, during a virtual event in July. The award is presented annually to a researcher who has made an innovative, highly original breakthrough discovery in environmental geochemistry that has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the Earth’s environment.

In August, the Geochemistry Division of the American Chemical Society (ACS) presented its Division medal to Hochella at an event in Atlanta. The award is presented every two years for outstanding accomplishments in the field, and honors his lifetime of work in the general field of geochemistry. He was also honored with a special issue of the ACS’s journal Earth and Space Chemistry.

Hochella’s previous honors include the Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in 2016; the awarding of Fellowships in eight scientific societies, including the Royal Society of Chemistry, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Geophysical Union; the prestigious Dana Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America and the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award to work in Germany, the DOE Geoscience Research of the Year award, and the Geochemical Society’s Distinguished Service Medal.

Other career highlights: Hochella has served on high-level advisory boards at the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. He also has served as president of both the Geochemistry Society and the Mineralogical Society of America. 

He was founder and first director of NanoEarth, a National Science Foundation-funded National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology that is part of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. He also was a founding faculty member of the College of Science’s Academy on Integrated Science, helping spearhead the inception of the Integrated Science Curriculum and the nanoscience programs.

Hochella has been a Hokie for much of his life. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1975 and his master’s degree in 1977, respectively, from Virginia Tech and his doctorate from Stanford University in 1981.

Related stories

Study: Nanoparticles produced from burning coal result in damage to mice lungs, suggesting toxicity to humans

Q&A: Geosciences’ Michael Hochella discusses study involving toxic nanoparticles produced by burning coal

Department of Geosciences’ Michael Hochella honored with emeritus status by Board of Visitors

Share this story