Some of our most challenging environmental concerns are too small to see. NC State researcher Owen Duckworth is devoting his career to understanding the complex interactions of contaminants in our soil and water. For his efforts, Duckworth was recently awarded the Jackson Soil Chemistry and Mineralogy award from the Soil Science Society of America. While the nature of his research is basic science it has profound implications and application for North Carolina citizens.
“I’ve always wanted to do things I found interesting in science but I also try to think about the applications. I try to do things that I think are useful to society. What we are doing [in a basic science lab] is just the first step in understanding interactions,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth’s lab currently has three major areas of study. One is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a family of “forever chemicals” that are a persistent problem in parts of the Cape Fear River Basin where they contaminate soil and water.
The second area of his studies is arsenic and other naturally occurring water contaminants. With over 50% of NC citizens on well water, understanding the source and movement of geologic deposits is critical before finding remediation solutions.
Duckworth’s other primary focus of study is siderophores – molecules that bind and transport iron for plant use. Iron-deficiency is an agronomic problem for some growers but also a nutritional threat for those with iron-deficient anemia caused by diet in lower-income countries.
Leading the Pack
The Jackson Award is bestowed upon a mid-career professional who has made an outstanding contribution in soil chemistry and mineralogy. In addition to Duckworth’s 13-year research program at NC State, he has also served in leadership roles for the Soil Science Society in journal editing, as a division chair, and with numerous student mentoring programs.
“It’s exciting to receive this award. It’s nice to be recognized by your peers as being somebody who’s made a contribution,” Duckworth said. “I’m not building a filter or commercializing a product. I’m trying to figure out how interactions happen, and by doing that we can figure out a better way to handle problems. But it doesn’t mean you always see the whole process. So it’s deeply meaningful to receive such recognition.”
Linking Soil and Human Health
Jeff Mullahey heads NC State’s Crop and Soil Sciences department and sees Duckworth’s environmental science work as an emerging strength of the university. “Dr. Owen Duckworth has made significant contributions to the field of soil and environmental biogeochemistry through his lab research program and his teaching and student mentorship. We are proud to call him a team member in our department and university and pleased to see his deserving efforts recognized by his peers in this award.”
In addition to Duckworth’s active research program, he also advises several graduate students and teaches an upper-level class in soil and environmental biogeochemistry. His future aspirations for lab research hold global benefit.
“I’m interested in the intersection between soil and human health, both supporting the bottom of the food chain and also as a route of exposure for chemicals. I see soil as both the foundation of where our food comes from and where our water gets filtered through and also where most of our waste ends up. We have to produce enough food to support the population safely. That is a massive, massive challenge.”
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