Sustaining an element essential to human life

July 16, 2013

Phosphorus is an element that is as essential to life as the food we eat.

As an integral ingredient in fertilizer, phosphorus enables high-yield agriculture and sustains life. Yet phosphate fertilizer is produced by mining non-renewable deposits located in just a few countries. And the same element that enables crops to flourish in industrialized countries can also pollute waterways from run-off and create algae blooms that collapse and kill fish. Jim Elser Download Full Image

Phosphorus has spurred much concern among scientists due to erratic and rising prices, with some predictions pointing to scarcity bottlenecks as early as 2034. Approximately 90 percent of the element is mined in Morocco and Western Sahara, China, South Africa, Jordan and the United States.

“Phosphorus is a classic double-edged sword. If there isn’t enough on our crops, they fail, and if there is too much in our lakes, they fail. So there are big challenges, such as how to keep the phosphorus where it belongs and how to make sure we have enough phosphorus for the long term,” said Arizona State University Regents’ Professor and phosphorus scientist James Elser.

A new book, “Phosphorus, Food, and Our Future” (Oxford University Press, 2013), coalesces the many forces that influence the phosphorus debate into one comprehensive examination of the issue from more than 45 leading scientists, government officials and private enterprise representatives such as miners, farmers and wastewater engineers.

The impetus for the book grew from the first international conference on sustainable phosphorus held in the United States, the Frontiers in Life Sciences: Sustainable Phosphorus Summit.  

“The conference brought all of the right people together to talk about the phosphorus issues. People like miners could talk to wastewater engineers and so forth,” said ASU biology graduate student Karl Wyant, who edited the book with biology graduate student Jessica Corman and Elser, Regents' Professor in the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

“Being a part of this book was an incredible experience. As graduate students, you are often expected to focus solely on your dissertation work. But we (Karl and I) were able to take a step out of this box and work with some amazing researchers on a very important, yet not well-studied, issue. I look forward to seeing how this book helps inform the much-needed dialogue about the next steps toward sustainable phosphorus use,” Corman said.

Chapters explore the biological and chemical necessity of phosphorus, as well as the different facets of phosphorus sustainability and the role of policy on future global phosphorus supplies.

Examined in the book are all the steps in the human phosphorus cycle, from the biological necessity of the element to mining and agriculture. Authors look at the phosphorus demand needed to support diverse staple crops such as rice and corn, as well as phosphorus used for feed for cows and chickens. They also take a broad look at strategies for recapturing phosphorus that is eliminated in animal waste and human sewage. The work concludes with emerging views on the global phosphorus system as a whole, and an examination of the dilemmas and opportunities for phosphorus sustainability in the coming decades.

“For each of those steps, we take a look at sustainable options available to practitioners in the field,” Wyant said. “For example, any sort of meat production is more demanding of phosphorus than a vegetarian diet and thus, the cultural aspects of food consumption play a role in the emerging picture of phosphorus sustainability. Everything is a tradeoff.”

One focus of the book covers mining and mining economics since the cost of phosphorus ore drives the total supply of the phosphorus on the market, Wyant said.

Editing the book as a graduate student was both a challenge and an opportunity for Wyant.

“We set the bar high. We wanted a book that takes this discussion of phosphorus to the next level. I’m really proud of the book. I don’t think a lot of graduate students get to do this, to run a conference and lead a book effort. This book will give everyone a foundation on how to talk about phosphorus sustainability,” he said.

Addressing the phosphorus issue now is crucial at this point when there are a myriad of different options available to secure enough phosphorus for developing and established countries.

“We have a lot of options to explore, but there is no single silver bullet solution,” Wyant said.

Psychology doctorate recipient of national award

July 16, 2013

Christine Chee, a graduate of ASU’s Counseling Psychology master’s and doctoral program in the School of Letters and Sciences, will receive a national award from the American Psychological Association next month in Hawaii.

Chee will be the recipient of the 2013 Outstanding Early Career Award for Ethnic Minority Psychologists in Trauma Psychology. She will receive the award on Aug. 2, at the APA Annual Convention in Honolulu. portrait of Christine Chee Download Full Image

“Our faculty is very proud of Christine. She is an exceptionally caring person who is dedicating her life to helping others,” said Sharon Robinson Kurpius, professor and interim faculty head of counseling and counseling psychology in the School of Letters and Sciences. “Even as a doctoral student she was sensitive to how race and culture influence the health and wellness of her clients, and she is now using this sensitivity and caring to help veterans who have experienced the trauma of war.”

Chee graduated from ASU in December 2008 and did her APA accredited pre-doctoral internship at the Southwest Consortium Predoctoral Psychology Internship at New Mexico Veterans Affair Health Care and Indian Health Services in Albuquerque. For her post-doctoral internship, she was a Clinical Psychology Postdoctoral Fellow at the Biomedical Research Institute of New Mexico Veterans Affairs Health Care Research Service. Currently she is employed at the Women’s Stress Disorder Clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., where her duties include mental health assessment, individual and group psychotherapy, psychoeducation services and continued professional development.

Her academic career started at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where Chee received her bachelor's degree in psychology. Chee has participated in approximately 25 presentations on a variety of topics, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Native American Veterans’ Military Service and Historical Trauma, Education and Training Opportunities for Native American Evaluators, Issues and Strategies for Counseling Native American People, and Ethnic Identity and Self-Esteem Among Native American Students.

Chee has been published several times, including in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development and through the National Science Foundation.

Despite the accolades and achievements, Chee is giving credit to others for her success.

“I have been so fortunate in my studies and career to have had plenty of people mentor me along the way,” Chee said. “I also have a very supportive spouse, family, in-laws and extended family from on and off the Navajo reservation. Having that support system in place is vital to achievement.”

Reporter , ASU News