PRISM Students and Mentor, Dr. Yi He, Conduct Research at USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
Early this summer, PRISM mentor, Dr. Yi He, recipient of the prestigious, 2015 USDA, E. Kika De La Garza Fellowship Program, afforded five of her lab students, one week of technical training at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) laboratory, located in Beltsville, MD. ARS is one of the world’s premier scientific organizations. The E. Kika De La Garza Fellowship Program offers faculty and staff from HSIs the opportunity to work collaboratively with USDA to address the challenges faced in the development of a well prepared Hispanic workforce. Dr. He and her students were provided the opportunity to further investigate toxic heavy metals in tobacco products. PRISM attendees included (l-r in picture at right) Colleen McNamara, Kathleen Lopez, Dr. Yi He, Victoria Mei, Fidelis Tan, and Tiffany Wong.
Students were able to learn lab protocols for conducting trace metal analysis and for using a dry ashing method, and a microwave digestion technique to process plant samples for inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES) analysis. All students had hands-on experience in the lab and worked side-by-side with leading research scientists who conduct research in toxic heavy metals. The students training, experience and exposure afforded by Dr. He’s fellowship is immeasurable.
Dr. Rufus Chaney, USDA, Research Agronomist, Crop Systems & Global Change was their host scientist and gave the students a presentation about lead (Pb) in garden soil, discussed metal distribution in some vegetables, how to prevent Pb exposure to young children, and exchanged ideas on how to prepare soil to start a new garden. In addition to learning new technical lab protocols, the students were impressed by how the lab was organized, and discussed how they can improve organizing their lab drawers back at JJAY. Students also visited a plant growth chamber and greenhouse where Dr. Carrie Green introduced current experiments and other interesting projects conducted by other researchers in ARS. Students showed special interest in heavy metal hypercumulating plants and the concept of “Mine Plant,” which means the metal concentration in plant is so high that the plant can be used as the source of mine. Students are anxious to get back to work at JJAY, to apply all that they learned.
Below read some of their accounts of the experience:
“Working for the USDA was a fun and new experience for me since I got to visit one of the government laboratories and I also had the opportunity to work closely with Dr. Green, the lab manager of the environmental laboratory. At the laboratory, I did a lot of acid cleaning and preparations prior to the analysis. Even though these tasks may seem petty, it is the most critical part for trace metal analysis/research since the quality of data relies on minimal sources of error, and proper sterilization protocol plays a huge part in such. Along with that, I learned to use the microwave digestion system, which involves using organic molecules to dissolve our tobacco samples prior to analysis using ICP-OES (Inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectrometry). Interning in the USDA laboratory helped expand my research skills at John Jay since I got to learn about the significance of each step involved in the experiments and how will it affect the final results – especially when handling over 100 samples.” – Fidelis
“The trip to DC was both enlightening and educational! As a group we were able to gain the knowledge and experience of a professional lab as well as gain valuable hands-on technical training with established methods and fancy equipment. It was a pleasure to work with new technologies like the microwave digestion chamber, electronic micro pipettes, and an adorably small analytic balance which was highly accurate (for once). By making our visit, we were able to truly grasp the necessity of environmental studies in the field of heavy metal analysis, as Dr. Rufus L. Chaney explained in his discussion, this contamination closely affects us all, whether urban or suburban, soil or water, everyone needs to understand the risks. Dr. Carrie Green who works alongside Dr. Chaney, showed us the ICP-MS and ICP-OES instrumentation and how both systems operate, optical and mass, as well as Fidelis allowing us to operate and prepare a sample for microwave digestion. This was important as it developed an understanding of how this instrumentation is implemented in the analysis of the counterfeit cigarette experiment that Hua, Fidelis, and Victoria are currently doing. But, of all this, my favorite part of the entire adventure was the hot and humid tour of the lab’s greenhouses. There were many interesting experiments including a hydroponic analysis of the absorption of heavy metals through different parts of the plant, in addition to experiments of cross-breeding plants to obtain more visibly appealing contrast to the average vegetable garden. Overall, the experience was a highly positive success and I look forward to having more opportunities to further explore the professional scientific community and all the new adventures it has to offer.” – Colleen
“The trip to the USDA labs was inspirational with a presentation about heavy metals in soils of local gardens in different states and their effects on human and environmental health. An opportunity to tour the lab, the greenhouses, and work alongside the researchers were given to us. This helps the current research because we learned their procedure to clean glassware and also did sample preparation of the cigarette samples. Overall, the trip was a wonderful experience and I would love to go back to the labs to work there again.” – Victoria
Click here to view additional pictures from this research trip!