Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Chemistry Notes From the Field: A New Blog!

Hi! My name is Josh Kearns, and I am excited to be a guest blogger for Chemists Without Borders!

I am a chemist by training – I hold a BS in chemistry with a minor in environmental engineering from Clemson University in South Carolina, and an MS in environmental biogeochemistry from the University of California-Berkeley. I am currently a PhD student in environmental engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and a visiting researcher at North Carolina State University. My work focuses on the development and application of low-cost, sustainable biomass char (“biochar”) adsorbents for use in locally managed decentralized water treatment.

I began this work during a several-years break from academia, when I was living and working with migrant and refugee communities in rural SE Asia. These small farming communities, like many around the world, have bourn a heavy burden of pollution associated with chemical-intensive agriculture, mining, and industrial development. During my travels then and since, I have met with countless villagers struggling to secure access to safe drinking water in regions where, for example, runoff containing high concentrations of pesticides and herbicides impacts local water sources. Unfortunately, there is insufficient attention the development of low-cost, sustainable, and locally appropriate methods for mitigation of chemical contaminants such as pesticides.

My colleagues and I at NCSU and CU-Boulder are bridging this gap through our research program investigating biochars made from a wide range of surplus biomass and bio-waste materials as low-cost adsorbents. One of the ways that our work is brought to fruition is through Aqueous Solutions (, a non-profit organization that colleagues and I founded several years ago to provide water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) consulting services to economically and politically marginalized rural communities in SE Asia. Aqueous maintains a field station on a farm in northern Thailand where we conduct research, development, and monitoring activities in the WASH sector. Through collaboration with local community based organizations, our work is part of a holistic effort to advance rural livelihood security that includes organic food production and seed saving, natural building and earthen architecture, and sustainable economic microenterprise.

I am lucky and grateful for the privilege to work as a laboratory and field scientist – and with brilliant and inspirational colleagues in both contexts! From my perspective, the transfer of knowledge and insights between lab and field domains is absolutely critical to solving the big problems of today. It’s probably straightforward for readers of this blog to imagine how discoveries made in the lab can be deployed outside the University to benefit society and the environment. But perhaps less appreciated by the science community in general is the importance of time spent immersed “in the field,” where interesting and imminently practical research problems present themselves continuously. Fieldwork is my source of inspiration, providing intellectual guidance as well as constructive feedback. Local friends and coworkers in rural SE Asia have shown me not only which research questions to ask, but how to ask them such that the results can be readily put into practice by the intended beneficiaries.

We chemists have a lot to learn from the everyday problem-solvers of the world working in developing communities around the globe. And through our knowledge of the chemical sciences we have something very valuable to offer in exchange. A recurring theme of these blog posts will be how we as chemists can avail ourselves of such opportunities for creative exchange, and thereby make a real difference through relevant and applicable scientific research.

I hope you will join in the conversation!

Feel free to follow me on Facebook, and “Like” the Aqueous Solutions FB page!

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