Three-year project kicks into high gear: Students work to purify toxic soil from mining in Zambia
Story and photos developed by University Communications.
G eorgia College & State University students are sowing the seeds of change.
Funded through a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an environmental science professor is leading this transformation in the central-southern region of Africa. His students are researching plants that may have the power to renew vast stretches of land poisoned from mining.
The three-year program includes International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) in the summers, plus continuing research during academic years on campus. It builds upon years of study by Dr. Samuel Mutiti, professor of geology and environmental sciences, who has worked tirelessly to clear Zambian soils of toxic metals.
Last summer, Mutiti took the first cohort—three undergraduate students and a graduate to Copperbelt Province and Kabwe, once dubbed the world’s most toxic town due to mining. Months of dry season in the region are followed by windy months. Children play in dirt fields, breathing in air particles laden with heavy metals like lead, cadmium and zinc.
Lead causes neurological problems, brain damage and lowered IQ in children. In pregnant women, it can cause anemia and miscarriages.
In recent years, Mutiti’s team built a concrete wall fence to block wind gusts at a playground at the David Ramushu Combined School in Kabwe. They buried contaminated dirt, encapsulating it with a layer of clean soil. In the future, Mutiti hopes to add plants that are known to pull pollutants from soil into their roots and stems.
For the IRES project, Georgia College students collaborate with peers at the Colorado School of Mines to study heavy metal pollution and phytoremediation—the use of plants to clean contaminated environments. They’re also looking for ways to reuse the plants.
Georgia College’s portion of the NSF grant is $165,000 to send four students for research to Zambia this summer, four next summer and another cohort in summer 2024.
- The first cohort spent six weeks in Zambia working with Mutiti to identify contaminated sites. They networked with students at the University of Zambia, government officials at the Ministry of Mines and various environmental organizations.
- Organizers are in the process of choosing next summer’s cohort. Four students will be funded to return to identified sites and grow plants that pull ground toxins into stems and leaves, leaving behind cleaner soil.
- In summer 2024, the last cohort will test plants for accumulation of toxins and determine if any parts are safe to be used for other purposes such as food, medicine or biofuels.
“I really appreciated the amount of inclusion we were allowed,” Logan said. “Almost immediately we were put into situations where we were able to express our thoughts and ideas on things, which was really cool.”
“We were able to see where we could make impacts,” she said, “and how the science we’re learning about and currently researching can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Senior Alana Stevens of Buford is majoring in environmental science with a minor in geology. She also knew little about the research going in. Now, she and Logan are lead researchers in Mutiti’s lab on campus.
In Zambia, students started their days early, traveled a lot, slept in youth hostels, and enjoyed African foods, like nshima—a thick porridge of white corn eaten with leafy greens and meat.
Mutiti lauded the work of his first cohort. Students learned to adapt, meet challenges head on, change plans at a moment’s notice and work with people from all backgrounds at an international site. They developed good work ethics, learned laboratory techniques at other universities and networked with professional scientists.
He’s proud of the way students broadened their perspectives and took ownership of the work, while gaining confidence and leadership skills. Students practiced critical thinking. They used logical reasoning and solved problems, as well as analyzed and interpreted data.
The knowledge they gained didn’t come to a stop when the trip ended.
Logan and Stevens are using what they learned last summer to continue research on campus and guide other students who hope to be part of the next Zambian cohort.
“I’m enjoying it,” Stevens said, “because I feel like l’ve done projects in school where I’ve started to answer a question, and I don’t quite get to the finish line. So, I’m really excited about this project and seeing what it becomes, because it does feel really big, and it will have big impacts.”
Since soils couldn’t be removed from Zambia, the group is working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to find contaminated soils in Georgia. If polluted soils can’t be located, they’ll add lead and metals to dirt to get the right amount of contamination for their research.
This soil will be used to plant sunflowers in the rooftop greenhouse at Herty Hall, along with other plants capable of growing in high concentrations of metals.
Graduate biology student Ashley Clark of Augusta is working on this aspect of the research. It’s his job to locate plants that pull toxins, like one he’s currently researching: hemp.
Some plants will be allowed to grow normally in clean soil. Others will be planted in contaminated dirt. Amendments like chicken manure, compost and other microbes will be used to see if they help plants absorb toxins.
Junior Wiley Bundy of Savannah is majoring in environmental science with a minor in geology and concentration in hydrology. She’ll water the plants—some overabundantly—to see if metals leach into groundwater.
Ultimately, this research not only helps protect humans—but it will propel students toward future goals.
In Zambia, Stevens discovered a love for fieldwork. She enjoyed meeting within a group, discussing what they did in the field that day and compiling information. She’d like to work in a research lab after graduation and continue programs that have global impact.
Logan said the project will look good on her graduate and medical school applications.