I recently met with Gayathri Gopalakrishnan. She is a Research Scientist in the Environmental Program at The Space Science Institute, a half-virtual institute of researchers based in Boulder, Colorado but located nationally.
Gayathri is an unusual and enlightening mix of curious, creative, and proactive. It is these assets combined with the unique atmosphere at the Space Science Institute that make her research and results so powerful.”I like to have my fingers in multiple pipes. It’s more fun when you can play with things on a really tiny scale, translate lab experiments to the field and run simulations of whole systems,” said Gayathri.
What she creates is “symbiotic science”: research that directly affects and interacts with the communities around her. Most notably, she finds ways to affordably clean and monitor the environment using plants, techniques called phytoremediation and phytomonitoring, respectively. This is an oversimplification of what she does. In fact, this is only one of the many different arenas in which she studies, but the implications of the research are vast.
She discovers ways to monitor contaminants in soil and groundwater using plant tissues. “You can actually map the contamination for both water and soil, just by sampling plant tissues, which brings down both the time and cost of monitoring by an order of magnitude…instead of drilling monitoring wells you can go out and snip a branch or poke a little hole like a woodpecker and take the plant tissue out of that,” said Gayathri.
Gayathri was inspired to find a cost effective method for monitoring groundwater by her childhood in India when a catastrophic chemical spill occurred at the city of Bhopal. Even though the accident occurred nearly thirty years ago, residents of Bhopal still struggle to find clean water. She aimed to find an affordable way to monitor the city’s groundwater, and her phytomonitoring systems have already set a precedent.
Based on Gayathri’s cost analysis, “…it would take a crew about a week to drill a well and collect samples. With phytomonitoring it would take two people about two days to collect 200 samples.”
In addition to monitoring, Gayathri cleans soils using phytoremediation. By planting specific species of trees and grasses, she can remove toxins from land and groundwater. For example, when trying to clean up metals, you plant members of the mustard family and ferns. She has utilized this technique in the past to create ecological areas and community parks, and is currently researching ways to turn the biomass into bioenergy.
She is working on this and many more projects at the Environmental Program in the Space Science Institute. According to Gayathri, “the environment is very collaborative… it has the startup mentality with lots of collaboration. There is a lot of freedom and you can do some interesting work.”
It is clear that Gayathri is doing just that and more: cleaning the world one leaf at a time.