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