Research & Innovation

Taking Soil Science to People’s Backyards: Stevens Researcher Named Fellow of the Soil Science Society of America

Awarded to less than 0.3% of its membership, this honor positions Stevens as a leader in soil science

Dibyendu ‘Dibs’ Sarkar, professor of environmental engineering and founding director of the sustainability management master’s program at Stevens Institute of Technology, has been selected as a Fellow of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) for his contributions to the field of soil science. The presentation of this honor took place during SSSA’s 2019 Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, on November 11.

SSSA is the leading progressive international scientific society for the advancement of knowledge and practices to sustain global soils. It bestows this prestigious honor on less than 0.3% of its membership in recognition of significant and outstanding achievements in soil science. Sarkar is the first Stevens faculty member to achieve this distinction. 

“It is a tremendous honor to be selected for this group,” Sarkar said, expressing gratitude for the award’s reflection of his achievements. This recognition signals Stevens’ rising leadership in the area of soil science and continued reputation of excellence in sustainability research and education, he added. 

Stevens is home to several world-class research centers where students can engage with advanced innovations in environmental and energy sustainability. Stevens also offers its master of science in sustainability management program through the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science. The M.S. in sustainability management program was founded in 2016, bringing together multiple disciplines and bridging the gap between scientific progress and social implementation. Graduates of the program are equipped with competencies and knowledge to lead in the era of sustainable development. 

Sarkar also runs the Hugo Neu Sustainability Seminar Series at Stevens, a free, live webcast for all interested in the science of sustainability, across campus and outside Stevens. 

Soil science research and its practical uses

In describing his research, Sarkar says that he’s “taking soil science to people’s backyards.” Case in point is the work his group is doing with the support of a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

In recent years, the word “lead” typically brings to mind the crises of elevated amounts of lead in the water supply of cities such as Detroit and Newark—not soil and plants in the backyard. But even 40 years after the U.S. government banned the use of lead-based paint, lead continues to pose dangers inside households in the form of lead dust. 

Deterioration of exterior lead-based paint in older homes, industrial pollution, and the use of leaded gasoline contribute to the contamination of soil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This contaminated dirt from the outside can make its way inside people’s homes; for example, children play outside and track in mud from the backyard with their shoes. “The soil comes back into the house as dust,” explains Sarkar. And because lead is a neurotoxin, it can pose health risks for the home’s inhabitants, particularly in babies and toddlers who are more susceptible, he adds.

Sarkar’s group aims to address the challenge with technology that is demonstrating the effectiveness of phytoremediation, a chemically assisted process guided by sustainability principles, to remove the lead from soils. The technology is currently in use in pilot projects in Jersey City and San Antonio. 

The technology includes a lead-accumulator plant cover, to reduce dust, and the injection of a biodegradable chemical known as EDDS (ethylenediamine-N, N’-disuccinic acid) into the soil, which makes the lead soluble for plants to uptake. Sarkar’s group uses natural filters of the vetiver grass for its potential to capture both nutrients and toxic heavy metals. The plants are left to grow for some time and then harvested. The process is renewable—the plants grow and are collected again in the future.

In addition to the sustainability benefits this technology delivers, it provides HUD with an affordable solution to help address the issue of soils contaminated with lead in urban neighborhoods, according to Sarkar.

Other ongoing research efforts he’s leading include the following projects: sustainable management of polluted road runoff using green best management practices (GBMP) and green technology development for nutrient and metal reduction in coastal waters.

Interdisciplinary approach to research: A key to solving sustainability challenges

As an advocate of holistic, multidisciplinary frameworks in research and education, Sarkar believes in working with people from various academic backgrounds and industries to develop innovations for a sustainable environment. Sarkar’s research combines multidisciplinary research with practical applications of geochemical, hydrological, and engineering principles. He leverages his expertise in soil and water chemistry, environmental quality and remediation, risk assessment, and green technology development, to help address issues related to environmental quality and its ultimate effect on the ecosystem and human health. 

In preparing future leaders to address systemic challenges to achieving sustainable environments, he energizes and motivates students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds—geoscience, chemistry, biology, environmental science, environmental/chemical engineering—to conduct soil science research for ecological problem-solving.

Sarkar completed his Ph.D. in geochemistry at the University of Tennessee and received his postdoctoral training from the University of Florida. Before joining Stevens, he was an assistant and associate professor at the University of Texas system and professor and founding director of the environmental management Ph.D. program at Montclair State University. 

Sarkar has authored/edited three books and over 140 refereed journal articles and book chapters. He is also a fellow of the Geological Society of America, serves in leadership roles for professional societies and journals, and is the founding editor of Springer’s Current Pollution Reports.