In 2016, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced safety standards for infant rice cereal due to elevated levels of arsenic contamination in rice.
Arsenic, denoted by the symbol As, is a toxic trace element found in water, soil, and air. Over the years, it has infiltrated into the food chain and found its way into some of the most basic and common foods for many regions of the world such as rice.
In 2014, Associate Professor of Chemistry Dr. Alison Bray was determined to advance research on this growing worldwide problem right here on the TLU campus. The plan was to raise rice plants in the campus greenhouse, contaminate them with small doses of arsenic, and analyze the rice tissue samples for arsenic uptake.
However, this project would be no easy task. Bray was presented with the challenge of assembling a group of determined students willing to fully immerse themselves in this important venture. She not only found a remarkable group of passionate Bulldogs, but also built a team with exceptional work ethic and creativity. Team Rice 1.0, as the inaugural group was known, set a high standard of commitment, discipline, and persistence for all future Team Rice students.
“These students were willing to jump in on a brand-new project and rolled with the flow when we hit road bumps,” remembers Bray. “The first year was really an adventure and they rose to the challenge with amazing enthusiasm.”
As the research on this project progressed, Bray learned so much from her students. She noticed how much students enjoy research projects once they feel invested in their work.
“This type of research and the hours spent were well beyond a typical undergraduate project, especially during the school year,” Bray explained. “These students ran with it and were constantly pushing to the next level.”
Fast forward eight years, all four original members of Team Rice 1.0 have gone on to complete doctoral programs across the country - demonstrating tenacity and commitment to furthering their education in the science and medical fields.
Dr. Rhaya (Jonhson) Murray is a 2015 graduate who double majored in chemistry and molecular biology. She completed a Doctorate of Osteopathic Medicine from Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. She is currently a pathology resident at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Dr. Nicole Pollok is a 2015 graduate who double majored in chemistry and molecular biology. She then completed a Ph.D. in Chemistry with a specialty in Bioanalytical Electrochemistry at the University of Texas in Austin. She currently works at Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies as a process development scientist.
Dr. Chad Ladewig, a 2015 graduate who majored in chemistry, completed a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of North Texas. He currently works at Northrop Grumman in Baltimore, MD.
Dr. Sioned Kirkpatrick graduated from TLU in 2016 with degrees in both chemistry and molecular biology. She then pursued a Doctorate of Osteopathic Medicine from the University of the Incarnate Word and currently serves as a surgical resident at Texas Health Harris Hospital in Fort Worth, TX.
The success of this group was not only measured with results, but also by the legacy left at Texas Lutheran. Just a year later after culminating the first round of work, Team Rice 1.0’s research efforts led to TLU receiving a $275,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“They provided fundamental data that helped us demonstrate to the USDA that we had the capability at TLU of carrying out agricultural research,” Bray said. “Their experiments laid the groundwork for a USDA HSI grant that helped us fund five years of future research and better equip our lab for further experiments.”
Work and research aside, Bray holds on to the great memories developed with Team Rice 1.0. She said the team developed a love for milkshakes and sampled them everywhere they went.
“It became a running joke and high-calorie habit. We then took up on walking or jogging meetings to help offset our milkshake habit.” she contently added.
As of this academic year, Bray welcomed the eighth edition of students, Team Rice 8.0. Like previous teams, these students remain inspired by the work of their predecessors.