Roundups / Science

This Delaware teen is working to solve Asia’s arsenic rice crisis

Charter School of Wilmington senior Preeti Krishnamani has been selected as a finalist in the prestigious national Regeneron Science Talent Search. She'll present her project in D.C. next month.

Preeti Krishnamani. (Courtesy photo)

Preeti Krishnamani found her passion for rice paddies in the 10th grade, when she had the opportunity to work in them with Universitiy of Delaware’s Dr. Angelia Seyfferth at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The focus was on an issue near to her heart, as a young Indian-American woman: lowering the levels of arsenic in rice, especially in Southeast and East Asian areas where the levels have the highest impact on communities.

That was just two years ago. Today, the graduating senior at Charter School of Wilmington (CSW) is getting ready to go to Washington D.C. to present her project, “Effects of Silicon Amendments on the Concentration and Adsorption Properties of Iron-Oxides in Paddy Soils,” as one of just 40 pre-college students nationwide to be named as a finalist in the highly prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS).

She is the first CSW student to be a finalist in the competition, and only the sixth from Delaware since it began in 1942 as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. 

In early January, Krishnamani was named as one of 300 Scholars (essentially STS semifinalists) by the Society for Science & the Public and Regeneron. That honor came with two $2,000 awards, one for her and one for CSW.

She learned she’d been picked a few weeks later. As a finalist, Krishnamani will be awarded a minimum of $25,000, up to a top prize of $250,000.

“It’s really exciting,” said Krishnamani, “especially representing Delaware, being an agricultural state.”

This isn’t the first major honor for this young project. Last year, Krishnamani was one of 15 finalists selected in the 2018 International BioGENEius Challenge.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring compound in many soils — a byproduct of volcanic ash and different metal ores. The amount of arsenic that leeches into most food crops is negligible, but rice, because of the way its grown and harvested, can have levels so high that it’s believed to cause health issues in parts of the world where rice is a daily staple.

“It’s a huge public health threat that causes diseases and cardiovascular problems,” said Krishnamani. “It’s one of the potential reasons diabetes is a big problem in Asia.”

Scientists around the world have been working on solutions to the arsenic rice crisis for decades, but the solutions are often not accessible to some parts of Asia like India and Bangladesh.

“Most [of the research] has been in genetically modified plants, but there are more cost effective ways,” the student said.

Krishnamani’s project is based on silicon soil amendment; silica, which also occurs naturally in soil and other organic matter, has been found to be effective in minimizing arsenic absorption in rice.

While there have been effective (but costly) synthetic silicon fertilizers introduced, Krishnamani’s project has introduced the idea of utilizing the hulls of the rice — a waste product that is commonly burned — by using natural silica from them to create a natural, sustainable rice fertilizer.

“It’s a productive way to use the waste and recycle it back into the rice,” she said.

The Regeneron STS Finals will happen in early March. In addition to the competition, she will be presenting her project on March 7 in a public showcase National Geographic Society in D.C.

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