Fellowship takes prof to Australia

Donald Sparks, T.A. Baker Professor and chairperson of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, recently returned from Australia, where he received the Sir Frederick McMaster Visiting Fellowship, given annually to a distinguished overseas scientist working in the field of agricultural and environmental sciences.

As a visiting fellow, Sparks engaged in a three-week, 7,500 mile tour across the continent, lecturing and interacting with scientists from Perth to Canberra, to Melbourne and Adelaide.

The McMaster Fellowship culminated in a plenary lecture by Sparks at Bioavailability 2001, an international symposium held in Adelaide, South Australia. The three-day symposium organized by the Land and Water Group of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) focused on chemical bioavailability in the terrestrial environment.

"The purpose of my visit was to learn more about research endeavors throughout Australia in land and water sciences and to provide input on current and future directions. I also acquainted them with research in the United States on molecular environmental science, and we discussed ways in which our two countries could bridge collaborations for future projects," Sparks said.

In addition to lecturing to various groups in academia, industry and government, Sparks spent his three weeks engaged in a variety of projects. He advised scientists on remediation strategies for contaminated industrial sites in Perth, and he sat on an advisory panel to review the Remediation, Contamination and Environmental Program of CSIRO during his visit to Adelaide.

Most notable in terms of long-term consequences was his involvement in the development of a multimillion-dollar proposal to establish a Cooperative Research Center (CRC) to be funded by the Australian government and industries in Australia and abroad to facilitate joint research projects.

"I've always been impressed with the quality of research being done in Australia in the soil and water area," Sparks said. "They have world-class scientists there. While they are performing outstanding research on remediation of contaminated soils, Australia has no synchrotron radiation facilities that employ powerful light sources to directly determine the species or form of contaminants such as metals in soils. This is an area in which we may collaborate."

According to Sparks, synchrotron radiation can reveal the specific molecular form of metals, such as nickel, and oxyanions, such as phosphate. By identifying the molecular form–for example, the oxidation state–scientists can determine the toxicity of an ion and better understand the fate, toxicity and bioavailability of ions in soil and water environments. With this information, they can better strategize what kind of remediation is most cost effective. They also may decide that they don't need to remediate at all.

"If the CRC project goes through, the major collaboration would offer an opportunity for graduate students and postdocs to come to each other's countries and to spend time working in each other's labs conducting science," Sparks said.

Sparks said that the United States has a number of synchrotron radiation facilities including those at Brookhaven, Argonne and Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratories, where he and his research group conduct research. He would offer training in synchrotron radiation techniques at one of these facilities to exchange students coming from Australia. UD students traveling to Australia would have the opportunity to gain information about state-of-the-art remediation techniques at various CSIRO field sites.

Among the things that impressed Sparks most during his trip are the long-standing, multidisciplinary collaborations Australia has between industry and government.

"I was impressed the day we met to discuss the CRC," Sparks said. "There were about 25 industries represented.

"All in all, the trip was a fabulous experience, and I learned a great deal. I also had a chance to meet and interact with many distinguished scientists who are leaders in their fields," Sparks said. "Receiving the McMaster Fellowship was quite an honor."

Sparks is president of the International Union of Soil Science and past president of the Soil Science Society of America. He is the recipient of many other honors and awards, including UD's Francis Alison Faculty Award, in 1996. He has served as adviser and mentor to more than 50 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and he has published more than 155 papers and book chapters and two textbooks.