Jane Willenbring to Study Soil Metals for Geology and Gardeners

Support from the National Science Foundation is allowing Jane Willenbring, assistant professor of earth and environmental science, to connect community gardening and the study of metal properties in soil. A NSF CAREER award, intended to help early-career scientists build a “foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research,” is enabling Willenbring to analyze metal beryllium in order to reconstruct the history of the Earth’s landscape and the scourge of lead contamination in urban soils. She is hoping to advance scientific knowledge while bringing awareness to a public health threat.

The beryllium found in Earth’s sediments comes from two sources: It can form inside minerals, or it is formed in the atmosphere then falls to the ground in rain. Geologists can measure the beryllium-10 inside minerals, but it's a laborious process. Measuring the beryllium-10 that originates in the atmosphere and then adheres, or “adsorbs,” to sediments, may be a much easier way of quantifying landscape changes, but researchers are conflicted as to the method’s reliability.

“We’re trying to understand what controls the adsorption behavior of beryllium-10 so we can bring this new technique up to speed,” Willenbring says.

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