Superfund Research Program

October 2020

Photograph of Mike Aitken
Aitken served on the faculty at UNC from 1988-2019 and was chair of the Environmental Sciences and Engineering department from 2006-2016.

Michael (Mike) Aitken, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, passed away September 19 after a long, courageous battle with cancer. Aitken served as a project leader and integral part of the UNC Superfund Research Program (SRP) Center for more than 20 years.

Aitken's research focused on how microbes break down pollutants in the environment, a process called bioremediation. He was one of the first researchers to identify that microbes may create more toxic break-down products as they degrade polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Aitken’s team explored methods to enhance PAH removal from contaminated soil, and documented processes that may increase toxicity following microbial breakdown.

SRP Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., a good friend of Aitken, remembers him as a pioneer in the field of bioremediation.

“He was one of the first to recognize the potential for creating toxic byproducts via bioremediation and to adopt a truly interdisciplinary approach to study the issue and search for solutions.”

“Mike was a pioneer in this area,” said Health Scientist Administrator Heather Henry, Ph.D. “He recognized the need for a bioremediation expert, an analytical chemist to identify the byproducts, and a toxicologist to test its potential toxicity before circling back to figure out how to manipulate conditions to reduce the formation of toxic byproducts.”

A great teacher and mentor, Aitken positively affected the lives of his many students and mentees.

“Even when he was head of the department, he always made time to work with me on my research project and provide advice and encouragement,” said former student and SRP Health Specialist Sara Amolegbe. “He was a brilliant scientist but also an exceptional leader and mentor.”

Aitken was a member of numerous professional societies and received a variety of awards and honors. In 2018, he was elected as a Fellow of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors, a distinction awarded to the best practitioners in the field. He collaborated with colleagues around the world, and was an impressive leader, scientist, mentor, teacher, advocate, and ambassador.

“He shared by example his commitment to strong science, excellent teaching, decency, integrity, inclusion, and ethical behavior,” said Suk. “He will be greatly missed.”