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Graduate student lands National Science Foundation Research Fellowship


Biology graduate student Marissa Mayfield waters plants recently in Herty’s rooftop greenhouse.

A Georgia College biology graduate student wants to work internationally, helping people cope after natural and manmade disasters by providing environmental remediation and rehabilitation.

Marissa Mayfield will get a head start on that dream this summer. She’ll travel to Zambia with geologist Dr. Samuel Mutiti to research the remedial properties of Moringa trees. Her field project recently garnered the attention of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which granted her a fellowship award of $34,000, along with a tuition stipend—a recognition that puts Mayfield in the country’s top percentage of science students.

“I am really excited to have gotten into the NSF Fellowship program,” Mayfield said, “because it gives me the extra money to do my research, especially since a lot of it requires traveling to Zambia.”

“I am so thankful to my advisor, Dr. Sam Mutiti, for believing in me and helping me apply,” she said.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is selective. It supports outstanding students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Mayfield is the second Georgia College student to win this prestigious recognition. Anne Zimmerman pursued her graduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She received a fellowship in 2014 for her work on the effect of kudzu bugs on soybean plants.

“This is further testament to the value of our department’s efforts in the Mentored Undergraduate Research Program,” said Dr. Indiren Pillay, chair of biological and environmental sciences. “I am very happy for Marissa. This is an amazing individual accomplishment for her.”

Mutiti mentored Mayfield when she was an undergraduate, getting a degree in environmental sciences. He’s now her graduate thesis advisor and says he couldn’t be more proud.

“I am very excited for Marissa,” Mutiti said. “This is a great accomplishment that will open up more doors for her, and I can’t wait to see what other successes she will achieve.”

Mayfield got her undergraduate degree in environmental sciences from Georgia College and is now pursuing her master’s. She is part of Mutiti’s Zambian research group of 18 students, who will do research in a mining town in Zambia for three weeks in June. That town, Kabwe, has been dubbed “the world’s most toxic” by media sources.

Mutiti and his students will finish building a school wall in Kabwe that was started in 2017. They will also plant grass in the schoolyard to keep winds from blowing contaminated dust and educate residents on toxins. 

Mayfield’s contribution will be to research the Moringa tree. Its roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil—but toxins as well.


Mayfield waters a Moringa tree she planted as part of her research to see if this species extracts pollutants from soil.

The Permaculture Research Institute calls it the “miracle tree,” because its leaves, roots and seeds can be eaten and provide large amounts of essential vitamins and minerals our bodies need. The tree is easy to grow. It matures fast withstanding drought, disease and pests. Moringa leaves are often used in eastern cuisine, and its roots taste like horseradish.

Some believe the Moringa tree has healing properties too—antitoxins that could help people with diabetes and high blood pressure. This led a group, funded by the World Bank, to encourage each family in Zambia to plant a Moringa tree for natural supplements. Residents were told the tree could help fight the negative effects of lead poisoning.

This recommendation concerned Mutiti, who has researched water quality and pollution in Zambia for years. The giant tree “hyper-accumulates,” he said, and may also be pulling toxins from contaminated soil that ends up in the leaves, roots and seeds people eat.

“That’s why we’re doing this research,” he said. “If they plant Moringa trees in their backyards that pull up heavy metals and then they consume it—that's just increasing the poison. Instead of trying to fight the negative effect of lead, they might actually be enhancing it by consuming those parts of the tree.”

This summer, Mayfield will supervise about seven undergraduates in Zambia. They’ll help her conduct studies on Moringa trees to see if they act as an additional pathway for heavy metal contaminants like lead and cadmium. She’s interested to see why there’s a difference in the same vegetation taking up lead in one area versus another, even though the soil contamination is similar. Her group will also help educate residents on the best ways to reduce exposure to lead.

By comparing test results of the Moringa with other plants, Mayfield hopes to devise a plan for the tree’s best use—either as a supplement for people’s diets or strictly to extract pollution from the soil.

It’s work Mayfield finds exhilarating and satisfying.

“The quality of life goes down when you have lead poisoning, more so in children,” she said. “They’re affected more, because their brains and nervous systems are still developing. The symptoms of lead poisoning are irreversible. People there are suffering. It’s heartbreaking.”

“I like the idea of being able to help people,” Mayfield added. “I want to travel and do something important in my life, and this is a really cool way to do it, by helping the environment. To know that when you left, you did something that helps someone—even if you only help one kid not get lead poisoning—that's one child who’s going to have a better quality of life.”

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