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University of Delaware Environmental Soil Chemistry Members In The News


Excellence + Enthusiasm = Equation for Success

Graduate students don't always take the time during their rigorous courses of study to experience the enthusiasm that led them to their subject in the first place. Not so with the environmental soil chemistry students in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Dan Strawn, a graduate student working on his Ph.D., has studied the differences in soil pH (acidity) that affect the leachability of particles and contaminants. It's an important fact for work in remediating contaminated soils. When Strawn performed a simple experiment in his laboratory, he saw a suspension of murky water and contrasted it with a clear, less acidic sample in which the soil had settled out.



Jutta Kleikemper, an exchange student from Germany, and Dan Strawn observe and record laboratory data while building camaraderie as part of a soils research team.

Excited by his "discovery," Strawn shared his samples, results and enthusiasm at the next meeting of the soil chemistry group.

"This is just the kind of attitude I hope to generate in the group," says Dr. Donald Sparks, Distinguished Professor of Soil Chemistry and chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

Sparks leads the laboratory research team that, at any given time, may include up to a dozen undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral students, visiting professors and research associates. With access to the latest in technical equipment--the group recently acquired an atomic force microscope with Unidel Foundation funds--the team is involved mostly in environmental soil chemistry projects, especially those that involve remediation of soils contaminated with heavy metals.

Strawn is studying the kinetics of soil-lead interactions with Sparks. While performing one experiment on lead sorption on soils l at different pH levels, he noticed a drastic difference in two suspensions. In the sample with the higher pH (less acidic), the suspension was clear. The sample with a lower pH was cloudy, indicating fine particles were suspended in solution.

Sparks's soil chemistry class was discussing pH-dependent charge on soils. Strawn's observation was a good, concrete| example of what he was learning in class. The observations made clear the importance of soil pH on soil particle mobility and was a reminder of why soil chemistry is important for controlling the fate of pollutants and nutrients in soils.

Strawn's dissertation project is to determine the effects of residence time (aging) on soil-lead interaction using kinetics and spectroscopy. His observation on the effect of pH on soil suspensions was an interesting aside from his main research, and as it turns out, is a well-documented phenomenon.

"It wasn't ground-breaking research," Strawn says, "but an interesting confirmation of textbook soil chemistry, and a reason why I find research so much fun."

In addition to sharing research information, members of the laboratory group often critique each other's presentations prior to professional conferences or job interviews. This kind of support helps in building esprit de corps.

"The laboratory group feels like my adoptive family," says Strawn, who relocated from California. "We interact and socialize outside of the laboratory, we take many of the same classes and we collaborate on our studying and research."

The soil chemistry laboratory group seems to have the equation for success. The program attracts students from the United States and abroad and currently stars five graduate students who have won competitive fellowships.

Awards garnered by students in the soil chemistry program include two national dissertation awards from the Soil Science Society of America. Four graduates have won International Potash and Phosphate Institute fellowships. Others have won the University teaching award, UD's Theodore Wolf doctoral dissertation prize in physical and life sciences and three regional agronomy graduate student awards.

Of the last seven faculty positions available nationally in soil chemistry, three have been filled by UD graduates and post-docs. Other graduates are on faculties in chemistry and earth science departments, and many have entered the field of industrial research or work at national laboratories.

With each new success building on the previous one, the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the

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