Contaminated soil and climate change: an interview with Dr. Gabriel Filippelli

The soil in your backyard, if you are far enough away from the concrete jungle of downtown Indianapolis to have one, may be hiding a dirt-y secret: it’s full of lead. According to research led by Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, IU Chancellor’s Professor and Director of the Center for Urban Health, one in four households in the U.S. may have soil that contains levels of the toxic metal greater than allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Collegiate Commons took the opportunity to ask him more about his research and what it might look like for undergraduates to get involved in his lab (Photo Credit: Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, collecting a soil sample with student researchers).

The bigger picture on contaminated soil

Filippelli said that the soil finding was one of the more shocking discoveries his lab had made, and that it was one example of student research assistants having the opportunity to be a part of work with a far-reaching impact.

“Lead is a harmful neurotoxin that has multiple sources in largely urban environments, and although most of those sources are no longer present, all of the past emissions now reside in soils in our cities, revealing a potential exposure concern,” he said. “Our work on environmental toxins, such as lead and other metals, has informed national policies and recommendations about reducing toxic exposures, especially to the most vulnerable populations.”

The broader picture of his research involves analyzing biogeochemical cycling, which is how certain elements are transferred between living matter and the environment. The cycle for lead, for example, can be greatly altered by human activity.

[RELATED: “How will Indiana University-Indianapolis recycle its solar panels?”]

The biogeochemical cycle of carbon is also influenced by human activity, which is cited as a source of climate change.

Filippelli frequently speaks on the topic, and recently wrote a book on climate change called “Climate Change and Life,” which can be purchased here. Filippelli is also director of the Environmental Resilience Institute, and their recent book “Climate Change and Resilience in Indiana and Beyond” can be purchased here.

Working in the lab

“Working in the lab and field are… [both] part of our research, and undergraduate research assistants are a vital component of this work,” said Filippelli. “They might be sampling, processing samples, and/or analyzing samples and inputting results into a central database. Most of this will be overseen by a project manager and graduate students.”

The sampling usually involves field study and subsequent geochemical analysis, which uses a plasma emission spectrometer as well as specialized spectrophotometers.

Filippelli told The Collegiate Commons that students tend to come out of his lab with a greater organizational ability and creativity, which are important to be successful as a scientist. He also mentioned that a great deal of work also requires writing and speaking skills, and getting involved in his lab has been a great way for many students to build them.

“Get in the lab or field as early and as often as you can, because it will strongly support your other academic objectives during your stay at the university,” he said.

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