Ph.D. student sheds light on wellwater contamination here and abroad

NC State University soil science alumna and Ph.D. student Elizabeth Gillispie spent January days drilling and sampling for chemicals beneath remote farm fields in Cambodia.

The next month, she visited a high-tech California synchrotron to get a sub-nanometer-level look at her samples.

While the synchrotron “was all microscopes and beams and computers,” she recalled, “it was such a different experience to go from being outdoors in the field analyzing samples, with cows around and chickens running everywhere, to this really scientific, Star Trek-looking way of analyzing samples.”

Then in March she met with Congress members and their staffs on Capitol Hill, explaining her research, the light it sheds on groundwater contamination and the importance of that knowledge to protecting people’s health.

Gillispie found the contrasts in her recent travels striking, fascinating – and perhaps key to her future as a soil scientist.

“I want that mix,” she said – a mix of high- and low-tech, of field and laboratory work, of research, outreach and policy.

While she’s undecided about exactly which path her career will take, two things are sure: “I know I want to be able to help and positively impact as many people as I can through water and soil quality,” she said. “And I hope my career will involve the kind of mix that I’m experiencing now as a student.”

Gillispie is working toward a Ph.D. degree under Dr. Matthew Polizzotto, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Soil Science. She also did her work as a master’s student under him, evaluating the reasons for elevated manganese concentrations in the well water of North Carolina’s piedmont.

Now Gillispie is considering the role manganese oxides play in limiting the transport of arsenic in groundwater in Southeast Asia. Both manganese and arsenic can, at high enough concentrations, cause health problems for people who drink groundwater.

Elizabeth Gillispie in the lab
Gillispie has been studying the roles manganese and arsenic can play in causing health problems for people who drink groundwater.

“Whether it’s in Cambodia, where I am studying, or North Carolina, we all rely on clean, healthy water to be healthy people,” she said. “So it’s important for us to know if I’m pulling water from an aquifer that is supposedly clean … what is the likelihood of it, over time, becoming contaminated? Are you at risk? Will you be at risk? And how can you prevent risk in the future?”

Gillispie is studying two Cambodian aquifers that are near each other, one with levels of arsenic that are undetectable and the other with arsenic levels above drinking water standards. Her goal: to quantify the potential for contamination of the clean aquifer, both from sediment beneath the aquifer and from groundwater in the neighboring aquifer.

While she pursues her studies, she’s also interested in making sure that stakeholders have access to findings and other information to help them make decisions about using well water. During her master’s project, she had numerous opportunities to reach out to various audiences, including well drillers, academics, local residents, geologists, hydrologists and environmental health specialists.

As a doctoral student, she’s expanded her reach to yet another audience: elected officials. As a winner of the Future Leaders in Science Award from the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America, she earned a trip to Washington, D.C., this past spring to undergo training in policy, communication and advocacy and to visit her congressional delegation.

As Gillispie prepares for her future as a soil scientist, she believes it’s important to focus on more than her graduate research and class work. It’s also important, she said, to find balance among personal interests such as spending time with family and friends, being outside and staying physically fit. (At the time of her interview with Perspectives, she was training to run her first marathon.)

Elizabeth Gillispie discusses different types of soils.
Gillispie, shown here working with school children, often makes time to contribute to the community.

Gillispie also makes time to contribute to the community, whether it’s by serving as president of the soil science graduate student association, helping Boy Scouts earn merit badges or working with others to create a calendar celebrating the International Year of Soils.

While Gillispie’s passion for soils and for science is decidedly strong, it’s relatively new. A native of Alexandria, Virginia, she started her undergraduate studies at the University of Mary Washington in hopes of earning an English degree. Along the way, though, she switched her major to psychology.

Then, while holding an internship with the U.S. Navy’s Director of Ocean Engineering, she learned to scuba dive and, along the way, realized how much she loved working out-of-doors. A fellow Mary Washington student and scuba diver convinced her to consider environmental sciences. She crammed in the needed classes and, a year and a half later, finished with a bachelor’s degree in environmental geology.

“Now I am absolutely in love with what I do, and it really was by chance that I got into this field,” she said.

As she prepares for her career, Gillispie said she knows she’s in the perfect place to do that.

“I always heard NC State was one of the best soil science programs in the nation, but I didn’t believe it until I came,” she said. “And now to be able to work here and to be given the experiences NC State has given me, I’m better off than I ever would imagine I’d be in, say, five years from now. So I can only imagine what more time here is going to give me.”

– Dee Shore