From genetic engineering to digital forensics to the plays of Harold Pinter, campus labs across the sciences, professional disciplines, and humanities showcase the talent, curiosity, and impact of Norwich faculty and students. Portraits of nine diverse researchers and the labs they work in.
BY SEAN MARKEY
The Norwich Record | Winter 2018
Environmental chemist Seth Frisbie is a world expert on detecting toxic metals in drinking water and the math behind their associated health risk. If the World Health Organization makes a rounding error, he catches it. Such tiny details matter. A mere 10 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water, the current U.S. standard for example, leads to an extra 1 cancer death out of 400 people. “Arsenic is so toxic, so carcinogenic that it cannot be measured to safe levels” in routine testing laboratories, Frisbie says. Arsenic isn’t our only worry. Trace amounts of far too many other toxic metals also act as powerful carcinogens or neurotoxins. Most of our drinking water today comes from the ground and therein lies the problem. “Most elements of the periodic table are in the Earth’s crust” and thus our water, he says. “We’re drinking filtered mud.”
A globe-trotting tour of four current projects:
1. France: On independent study leave this year, Frisbie and his wife and research partner, Erika Mitchell, are working with Richard Ortega at the Nuclear Research Center at the University of Bordeaux. Using PIXE, a state-of-the art particle accelerator, they are investigating how manganese might affect the neurology of infants, children, and the elderly, and possible links to Parkinson’s Disease and some learning disabilities.
2. MIT/Nepal: A collaboration with MIT engineer Susan Murcott to develop an inexpensive, handheld LED spectrophotometer to test drinking water for toxic metals in Nepal and other developing countries. Students in Norwich Professor Mike Prairie’s electrical engineering design lab have helped advanced the prototype.
3. Norwich: Frisbie is nearing completion on a groundbreaking device to detect arsenic in drinking water, one that is a thousand times more sensitive than is currently possible in routine testing laboratories. Senior biochemistry major Greg Wilkins has worked to calibrate the instrument.
4. India: Frisbie is helping colleagues at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, NU Chemistry Chair Richard Milius, and chemistry major Joe Minicucci build a chemical reagent that colorizes uranium in drinking water, to enable inexpensive field testing with LED spectrophotometers. (See #2.)