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Rural concerns motivate thorough pesticide research
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi State University researchers are seeking a balance between health concerns and effective pesticide use in a state where many residents depend on agriculture and often co-exist in areas where chemical use is common.
Russell Carr, a faculty member at MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, is one of the scientists taking advantage of newly renovated laboratory space dedicated to pesticide research. The National Institutes of Health Center of Biomedical Research Excellence provided almost $10 million to enhance the CVM's Center for Environmental Health Sciences. The center will improve the university's ability to compete for grants in the field of pesticide toxicology.
Carr, an associate professor of basic sciences, grew up in the Mississippi Delta town of Ruleville and frequently was around agricultural pesticides. During his college years, he worked summers as a cotton consultant. He knows how important chemicals are in crop production, and he wants to make sure they are safe for the workers and families who live in areas such as the Delta. His life experiences attracted him to the field of neurotoxicology.
"I'm researching the effects of pesticides on brain development and the potential of long-lasting effects of early exposure in rats," Carr said. "After exposures, we look at growth factors in the brain that help cells make connections."
Carr came to the veterinary college as a graduate student and continued in post-doctoral work and as a research scientist before joining the faculty. He earned a doctorate in animal physiology and toxicology from MSU. Because this is early in Carr's academic career, he is the type of researcher the National Institutes of Health was targeting with the special funding.
Dr. Janice Chambers, director of the center, said one aspect of the center's funding is to promote research efforts by junior investigators. The NIH Center of Biomedical Research Excellence provides money for researchers who are either new to their career or to a particular field.
"The special funding enabled us to make significant upgrades in our equipment and space. We've also been able to increase the number of people working on research projects," Chambers said.
"We are developing a competitive interdisciplinary team. The lab setup allows several groups to integrate their investigations," she said. "Students have more opportunities to interact with research activities. They have a much more dynamic environment in which to learn."
Carr said the laboratory expansion improves MSU's ability to compete with other universities for research dollars.
"We can compete against other schools with enormous resources. Our facilities are as good as anyone else's with a faculty our size," Carr said. "We have eight to 10 faculty members (using the laboratory), compared to some universities that may have up to 60 faculty members in similar research centers."
Eddie Meek manages the laboratory and has a master's degree in environmental toxicology. Meek's family also has an agricultural background. His father and grandparents were row-crop farmers in the Batesville area, and his brother is a custom fertilizer and chemical applicator.
"Our research emphasizes the study of environmentally relevant levels of exposure to pesticides," Meek said.
As the lab manager, Meek oversees the use of equipment, manages projects and assists in running some test samples. The laboratory covers 3,500 square feet, which is 1,200 square feet larger than before the NIH funding.
"The additional space and equipment have helped researchers be more productive. They can generate data faster and with greater accuracy," Meek said.
Some of the data processed in the laboratory comes from field sampling. Dr. Bob Wills is an associate professor who collects samples for pesticide studies in three Delta counties: Issaquena, Quitman and Tunica.
"We chose three Delta counties that crop harvest information indicated high, medium and low pesticide use. We are testing drinking water, surface water and the soil for the presence of chemicals used to kill insects, plants and fungi," Wills said. "Later, we will see if it is possible to estimate environmental pesticide levels from harvested crop information."
Wills said the ability to use harvested crop information as a reliable predictor of pesticide levels would enhance the process involved in future research.
"Delta farmers, the highway department, railroad employees and others who use these pesticides are helping us monitor the amounts applied," he said. "We will compare the use of pesticides with amounts found in the environment and the crops grown in the three counties. If a link can be made between application and detection, then predicting exposure of the population might be more easily accomplished."
Wills is an experienced researcher but only recently began applying his knowledge of epidemiology to pesticides, rather than infectious diseases.
Contact: Dr. Jan Chambers, (662) 325-3432