MEDIA: Sarah Ann Hones, Distinguished Scholarships Program director, WSU Undergraduate Education, 509-335-8239, shones@wsu.edu

Amelia Veneziano, communications staff, WSU Undergraduate Education, 509-335-6679, aj.veneziano@gmail.com

PULLMAN, Wash.—Washington State University doctoral student Patrick Freeze has received a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant to spend 10 months in Thailand to study reducing toxic cadmium contamination and plant uptake in rural rice paddy soils, with a goal to improve the quality of the grain as a safe food source as well as an export product.

“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.”

She also noted his Fulbright placement aligns perfectly with the International Year of Soil (IYS), as declared by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. IYS is an initiative to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.

Iron Amendments to Clean Soil

Freeze is anxious to begin his investigations this August with Saengdao Khaokaew, faculty member in the soil science department at Kasetsart University in Bangkok. Khaokaew earned her doctoral degree and published at the University of Delaware while on a graduate student fellowship from the Ananda Mahidol Foundation of the current King of Thailand. At Kasetsart, they will study new forms of environmental contamination, their causes and sources, and the means to reduce their impact. The Fulbright Program’s emphasis on global exchange will also allow Freeze to examine the social, health, and economic importance of reducing heavy metal contaminants.

Freeze called cadmium contamination a “devastating problem.” The metallic chemical element is released into the environment during zinc mining and can impact kidney and bone health, according to the National Institutes of Health. It is especially problematic in rice paddies. The technical process to reduce and remove cadmium from the soil beneath the shallow water involves using an iron amendment to bind and extract contaminants.

Experience in Africa and Europe

Freeze has previously traveled abroad for research. As an undergraduate at the University of Nevada-Reno, he went to Ghana in 2010 with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide to assist indigenous African tribes impacted by gold mining. Sodium cyanide is used to treat the ore in order to extract the precious metal, but the compound is a possible wastewater contaminant that can leech into the tribes’ drinking water, wells, rivers, and agricultural land, poisoning them, their crops, and their livestock.

“That work set me on my path, for the most part,” Freeze said. “It was an incredible experience.”

Freeze was also a visiting research fellow at Italy’s University of Naples Federico II where he studied under agricultural chemist Alessandro Piccolo, director of the Research Centre for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy in Environment, Agro-food, and News Materials. He also traveled to the University of Bologna to study groundwater movement, soil and root respiration, biofuels and vineyards, and to the Swiss Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule technology and natural sciences university (ETH Zurich) to study metal contamination in soils.

“Metal contamination issues are pervasive globally,” Freeze said of soil contamination. “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.”

Networks Led Freeze to WSU

The Texas native learned of WSU’s soil science and agriculture work through his professional research network that includes WSU Tri-Cities’ Food and Environmental Quality Laboratory research director Vincent R. Hebert. With his encouragement, Freeze applied and was accepted to study in Pullman under James B. Harsh, chair of Crop and Soil Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. Freeze is interested in remediation of soils contaminated by arsenic and lead.

“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.

Human Potential and Happiness

When his studies are complete, Freeze plans to work across the country and world to improve soil quality. His research into using iron to mitigate the effects of heavy metals has direct impact in the Pacific Northwest, from cleaning up arsenic-lead fertilizer contaminants in Wenatchee to mitigating construction runoff on Seattle’s slopes.

“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. “We all benefit from industry, such as mineral extraction. But we also have smart people who can come up with smart solution to reducing the impacts from that activity.”

“A lot of it is being fearless and just doing it,” Freeze said. “It’s crazy, to think about where I came from. As a child, I used to sit outside in mud puddles in the summer! But human potential is off the charts, and we don’t even realize it. If you have a goal, you have to go for it, because you won’t be happy otherwise.”

As WSU’s newest Fulbright, Freeze will go one-third of the way around the globe to continue his scientific journey to make the world a better place for all.