Flower Power

May 23, 2011

BMCC science major Lisa Bloodgood plans a career in phytoremediation.

“‘Phyto’ is Greek for ‘plant’, and remediation has to do with cleaning,” she says. “So ‘phytoremediation’ deals with plants that clean environments, like soil or water.”

How is that possible?

“A lot of plants evolved growing alongside, say, an iron seam, or an environment where’s there’s nickel, naturally,” Bloodgood explains. “So these plants have evolved to be able to handle that kind of metal in the soil.”

Backyard toxins

Heavy metals are a common soil pollutant, she says—something that hit home when she moved to Brooklyn, with its unregulated, industrial past, “to a great apartment, and a big backyard full of trash.”

She researched clean-up efforts online, and came across a study on the use of sunflowers, built into rafts, to help clean the waters near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, in the Ukraine.  

“These sunflowers were pulling uranium, sequestering this very toxic metal into their shoots and stems,” says Bloodgood. “Knowing the potential to revitalize ecosystems in such a beautiful way is magnetic. It has been my greatest epiphany.”

At BMCC, she has worked closely with science faculty to create a course of study on phytoremediation, looking at lead’s impact on plant germination, and examining plants’ beneficial oils, “their use in biofuels, and how these applications may be made more economically viable.”

A garden grows in Brooklyn

The Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation provides federally funded scholarships to college students building environmental careers, and Native American students pursuing tribal policy or health care careers.

Bloodgood, who received the Foundation’s maximum $5,000 scholarship, feels her community work, as well as special opportunities at BMCC helped distinguish her from over 500 other applicants.

At PS 123, an elementary school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, she’s helping create a student garden. “We started with just planting daffodils,” she says, but they soon expanded to composting, and this winter will build a hydroponic vegetable garden.

“The kids are loving it,” she says. “They’re beginning to understand the importance of stewardship.”

She also worked with Wanda Gala of the Coalition for Hispanic Families, Arts and Literacy Program, who reached out to MillionTreesNYC—and soon the school will be breaking through asphalt, to plant saplings on its grounds.

At BMCC, emboldened by a successful Student Government Association effort to replace Styrofoam in the cafeteria with paper products, Bloodgood is working with administration and faculty to create a sustainability club and focus attention on a greener campus.

“People care,” she says. “I think it can gain momentum and we can really develop something here.”

Instrumental support

“At BMCC, I feel I’m very lucky,” says Bloodgood, who has completed C-STEP projects under the direction of science professor Lalitha Jayant.  

“She has been instrumental to me,” says Bloodgood. “She was my biology professor, and I ended up doing a C-STEP internship on microbiology and forensics this past summer, and that opened a whole new level of understanding for me.”

She has also worked closely with science professor Sarah Salm, her academic advisor and sustainability club advisor, as well as professors Catarina Mata and Adolfina Koroch, her research mentors, and science professor Edith Robbins, who “feeds me a steady stream of amazing articles on really interesting work that’s being done in the biological fields.”  

“All of these women have helped me incredibly,” says Bloodgood. “I can’t thank them enough.”

Roots, and branching out

“I grew up in Rockland County, West Nyack,” says Bloodgood. “My mother was a huge recycler. She hated junk food, she loved to take us camping—that lays a foundation for sustainable living, right there.”

From BMCC, Bloodgood plans to transfer to the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York, Syracuse.

Her goal is to continue investigating both the science and economic viability of phytoremediation, using plants and microbes to restore damaged ecosystems.

“I want people to say, ‘Instead of getting the bulldozers in here and removing this soil and dumping it somewhere else, let’s deal with it right here and now’,” she says.

The Udall legacy

The Udall family has made significant contributions to environmental reform, for over three generations.

Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall implemented The Wilderness Act of 1964, as well as The Land and Water Conservation Fund. His brother, Arizona Congressman Morris Udall championed the rights of Native Americans and created the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, doubling the national park system, and tripling the national wilderness system.

“A lot of people feel that somebody else will fix this,” says Bloodgood, of today’s environmental challenges. “And that’s something the Udall brothers were talking about—that we have to take personal responsibility.”

The Udall Foundation was created by Congress in 1992, and this year, over 95% of the 510 scolarship applicants were from 4-year colleges. “I believe I’m the first Udall Scholar from BMCC,” Bloodgood says—but she doesn’t think she’ll be the last.

“I am committed to this idea,” she says, “and want nothing more than to make it spread, like wildflowers.”

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