PULLMAN, Wash. – Having studied soil contamination and its effect on food sources worldwide, it seems fitting that Ph.D. student Patrick Freeze of Washington State University should win a Fulbright grant during the United Nations International Year of Soil.
He will leave for Thailand in August for 10 months of research to reduce toxic cadmium contamination and uptake by plants in rural rice paddies. The goal is to improve the grain as a safe food source locally and for export.
Cadmium is released into the environment during zinc mining and can impact kidney and bone health, according to the National Institutes of Health. Freeze will focus on using an iron amendment in rice paddy soil to bind and extract the cadmium.
Helping communities manage locally
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program’s emphasis on global exchange will also allow him to examine the social, health and economic importance of reducing heavy metal contaminants.
“We all benefit from industry, such as mineral extraction,” Freeze said. “But we also have smart people who can come up with smart solutions to reducing the impacts from that activity.
“Metal contamination issues are pervasive globally,” he said. “It’s a huge deal, so if we can install a low-cost, sustainable and locally produced technology to give people a way to manage it on their own, that’s gold right there.
“In the future, I will be working with indigenous groups – farmers and general communities – impacted by industrial activity, whether from organic or inorganic contamination, displacement or something else,” he said.
College: the most foreign experience
Freeze also comes from a farm-community background in the Texas hill country. One of seven children, “I feel like my family has the makings of a good country song,” he said. “When I was four, my family and I lived in a tent. In junior high I picked grass in a neighbor’s corn field. With that many kids, resources can be tight.”
He went to Ghana in 2010 to assist indigenous tribes impacted by cyanide contamination from gold mining. He studied and did research in Naples and Bologna, Italy, and in Switzerland.
He even stumbled upon a distant cousin in Italy after noticing the author of a language book had the same name as his maternal grandfather who immigrated to America.
“My great-uncle Lou bought her father his first pair of shoes during the war,” Freeze said. “It’s crazy. Getting the opportunity to go to Italy opened up this connection with someone out of nowhere.”
But as a first-generation college student, beginning as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Reno gave him what he calls the biggest culture shock of his life.
“Going to a large university for the first time was honestly the most foreign experience I have ever had, or ever will have, including my international research and travel experience,” he said. “Once I got over that, though, I was completely fearless.”
His work at WSU is with James B. Harsh, chair of crop and soil sciences in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.
“Directly with Dr. Harsh’s guidance, WSU has given me the hard science understanding of not only what is going on in these contaminated soil systems, but also their actual risks in terms of human impacts and how to approach feasible site remediation. The chemistry is fascinating,” Freeze said.
“Patrick’s pursuits in soil science and remediation in combination with his personal interest in improving life through science made him an excellent candidate for support from the nationally funded Fulbright program,” said Sarah Ann Hones, director of the Distinguished Scholarships Program in WSU Undergraduate Education. “We appreciate that he will be an outstanding ambassador of our university and the U.S.”