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​Biochem Major Contributing to Agricultural Research in Maryland

July 15, 2016

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For Michael Penrose, the best thing about chemistry is that it’s applicable to every aspect of life. As part of the Chemistry Department’s ongoing partnership with the USDA, the senior biochemistry major is spending his summer at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) in Beltsville, Maryland.

Working in the labs of Research Soil Scientist Dr. Yakov Pachepsky, Penrose is conducting experiments to determine which areas of irrigation pods (i.e. near algae mass, away from algae, center or edges of a pond) would be better to draw water from and help decrease the amount of E. coli in water used for crops.

In October of 2015, Texas Lutheran University received a $275,000 grant from the USDA to increase recruitment and retention of STEAM students. A special project stemming from that grant is focused on enhancing food safety by exploring how growing methods affect the amount of arsenic uptake by rice—led by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alison Bray.

Penrose’s research is also focused on food safety and actually marks the beginning of a five-year long research process. He is especially interested in the biological process and the reactions driving them.

“Each sample is evaluated for its quality including its pH, nutrient concentrations, turbidity, and growth of E.coli,” Penrose said. “Each pond is sampled multiple times on different days to allow for different conditions. The objective is to determine how position and each of the variables affect the E.coli growth to determine when and where is the best time to irrigate.“

A second experiment he’s working on involves taking sediment and water samples from a nearby creek to test for bacteria concentrations and to see if a high flow event increases the amount of bacteria in water samples. Penrose said earlier research has shown that sediment houses a lot of bacteria and points to the idea that most of the bacteria entering the water comes from sediment. The experiment is set to avoid runoff to only allow bacteria from sediment into the stream to see if bacteria are introduced.

“The best part about this experience is that it’s half lab and half field work so I can experience both,” said Penrose, who plans on going to graduate school for toxicology. “Many of the techniques we use in the labs here are similar to what I’ve done at TLU. My education has definitely prepared me for this research.”

Professor Bray said this opportunity allows the TLU chemistry program to expand students’ exposure in the fields of agricultural science.

“The labs in Beltsville Maryland are one of USDA flagship laboratories, where truly exciting agriculture research is conducted,” Bray said. “It’s a new and exciting opportunity to have TLU students participating in novel research under the supervision of top USDA scientists. We look forward to this ongoing relationship and hope to send more students to the BARC labs again next year.”

This project was made possible by USDA NIFA 2015-38422-24073