Charter student completes research in Seyfferth’s lab

February 19, 2014 under CANR News

charter student completes research in Angelia Seyfferth's labWhen Rohith Venkataraman, a junior who attends the Charter School of Wilmington, decided to search for research being conducted by University of Delaware professors, he did not know what he would find. By chance, he came across Angelia Seyfferth’s research and sent her an e-mail asking if he could help out in her lab.

Now, about a year since that e-mail was sent, not only has Venkataraman completed his research with Seyfferth, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, and Gang Li, a postdoctoral researcher in Seyfferth’s lab, but that research helped him place first in the plant science section of his school’s science fair. He will now be presenting his research project at the 19th annual Delaware Technical Community College Science Expo in February.

“It’s safe to say that email was a great decision,” said Venkataraman. “Dr. Seyfferth has been encouraging and helpful right from the get go and I have had a wonderful research experience under her guidance and Dr. Li’s tutelage.”

The research began last summer when Venkataraman worked with Seyfferth and Li on a plant science project dealing with the arsenic uptake mechanism in rice plants. Venkataraman said that Seyfferth’s previous work suggested that one can decrease the amount of arsenic assimilated by a plant if one adds silicic acid to the growth media of rice plants.

“This promising research could lead to new ways of growing rice in areas with high arsenic contents in the soil,” said Venkataraman. “As a means to confirm literature and test our own variables, we designed and grew plants over a period of 3 weeks, 6 weeks, and 9 weeks. The plants were then flash frozen and stored in a freezer for further RNA analysis of oxidative stress genes and total arsenic content analysis.”

Venkataraman said that the procedure for extracting RNA and analysis was “quite complex. There were many steps each requiring careful attention to details. The procedure required adding small quantities of many solutions and centrifuging the tissue numerous times.”

As for his favorite part of the project, Venkataraman explained that he enjoyed assisting Li with changing the nutrient solutions for the plants and assisting with the liquid nitrogen flash freezing.

“The attributes of chemicals and their properties have always amazed me,” said Venkataraman. “I have always looked forward to Dr. Seyfferth’s insight on scientific aspects of the research, which she has enthusiastically shared with me. Dr. Li has guided and explained about various processes that we were working on. Both of them have expanded my horizon of knowledge and made my experience at the lab and research something that I have looked forward to.”

Seyfferth said that she was “impressed by Rohith’s questions and scientific inquisitiveness, he is a highly motivated young student.” Seyfferth added that she is “eager to continue providing research opportunities for high school students across Delaware.”

As for his plans for after high school, Venkataraman said that he is not sure what he wants to do yet but that he is exploring studying molecular biology along with a pre-med track.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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Department of Plant and Soil Sciences adds Seyfferth to Staff

November 19, 2012 under CANR News

Angelia Seyfferth has joined the faculty in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR).

Seyfferth previously conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford University under the Department of Environmental Earth System Science. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Towson University, and received a doctoral degree in soil and water sciences from the University of California, Riverside.

In addition to being an assistant professor in CANR, Seyfferth is also affiliated with the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), which she says she looks forward to as it will open the door for interdisciplinary research opportunities, especially with regards to environmental issues.

“UD has started a strong focus on environmental issues with the creation of DENIN and the Critical Zone Observatory and it just seems like a really exciting time to be here, to be affiliated with the environmental movement that’s happening on campus,” said Seyfferth.

One of the areas that Seyfferth’s research focuses on is arsenic levels in rice, and she said that interdisciplinary collaboration can help inform this research. “I think you can learn a lot about a particular topic if you’re narrowly focused on it but to solve some of these big issues, you need to think trans-disciplinary. So if you think about the arsenic in rice issue, you have to understand what’s happening in terms of the soil chemistry but also the plant physiology and if you were just closed to one or the other, you may not understand how they interact.”

There is also a social aspect for communities–especially those in South and Southeast Asia–when it comes to rice that Seyfferth said can only be solved through interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Typically natural scientists and social scientists have little interaction.  One of the great things about DENIN is that natural scientists have the opportunity to interact with people on the social side,” said Seyfferth. She explained that in Cambodia, the word for “to eat” is the same as the word for “rice” and having outsiders come in and simply tell the residents to change their practices won’t work without understanding the social science aspect.

“So again, just like not any one scientific discovery is going to fix the problem, it’s not just one field, it’s going to be several different people coming together with different experience and expertise to solve some of these complex environmental issues,” said Seyfferth.

Seyfferth said that her research “focuses on understanding the processes that dictate contaminant and nutrient cycling in the rhizosphere and lead to uptake of contaminants by food crops.” Another part of her research is “looking at ways to minimize the amount of contaminants that are taken up by food crops.”

One such contaminant is arsenic.

As far as arsenic in rice, Seyfferth explained that rice is very susceptible to arsenic because of the way in which it is grown. Most soils contain arsenic, but when arsenic is present in soils that are aerated, the arsenic is bound to the solid soil particles and doesn’t move.

Rice, however, is mostly grown in flooded conditions.

“If a plant is going to take up arsenic, the arsenic needs to be in the soil solution,” said Seyfferth. “The process of flooding a soil sets up a whole different suite of biogeochemical conditions which allow the arsenic to be released from the solid and move into solution where the plant can take it up. So rice tends to accumulate more arsenic than other cereals because it’s mostly grown under flooded conditions.”

When it comes to the risk that arsenic in rice poses to Americans, Seyfferth said that the arsenic toxicity has to do with a variety of factors, among them is the concentration of arsenic in whatever a person may be ingesting, and the amount of tainted food and water ingested.

This is one of the reasons that Americans are at less of a risk than citizens of South and Southeast Asia. For one thing, the water quality standards are safer in the U.S. than they are in, for example, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Also, Americans do not depend on rice in their daily diet as much as those in Southeast Asia, where they eat rice 3 times a day, everyday.

That doesn’t mean that Americans should not be concerned, however. “I think it’s important to be concerned, to be aware of any chemical that you’re being exposed to,” said Seyfferth. “But the amount of rice that we tend to eat, typically in the U.S. is much lower. If we have it a couple times a week, it’s probably not going to have a huge impact.”

Seyfferth also notes that brown rice, while more nutritious than white rice, is also higher in arsenic concentration. “The act of polishing the rice to make it white removes the micronutrients that are located on the outer layer of the grain,” said Seyfferth. “So if you polish it, you’ve removed much of the arsenic but you’ve also removed many of the micronutrients that we actually need.”

Article by Adam Thomas

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