UD’s Sparks named 2015 American Chemical Society medalist

UD's Sparks named 2015 American Chemical Society medalistThe University of Delaware’s Donald Sparks has been selected as the 2015 medalist for the Geochemistry Division of the American Chemical Society (ACS), a congressionally chartered independent membership organization that represents professionals at all degree levels and in all fields of chemistry and sciences that involve chemistry.

Sparks, the S. Hallock du Pont Chair in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Francis Alison Professor, director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) and a leader of the University’s Environmental Soil Chemistry Group, is the first soil scientist to receive the prestigious award. Sparks also holds joint appointments in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the School of Marine Science and Policy.

Of learning that he had received the award, Sparks said he was “overjoyed.”

“It means a lot to me because it’s recognition not just of what I’ve done, but also of the people I have worked with,” he said. “I’ve had a remarkable group of students and post-doctoral researchers over the years and certainly part of the recognition goes to them, too.”

Blake Meyers, chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, said he was excited to learn that Sparks was receiving the award

“Don is an outstanding scholar, and this recognition by the ACS is a well-deserved honor that reflects the incredible contributions that he has made to the fields of soil science and geochemistry over many years,” Meyers said. “Don contributes his time generously to support environmental science here at UD, nationally and internationally. His work has helped develop the research infrastructure across campus, and he is also an excellent mentor to students, young scientists and faculty members.”

In the letter of nomination for the award sent by Scott Fendorf, a former doctoral student of Sparks who is now the Huffington Professor of Earth Sciences and chair of the Department of Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford University, he said that in addition to being a tremendous adviser and mentor, “Sparks is a leading scholar in geochemistry and soil chemistry, having contributed wide and deep to our understanding of reactions at the solid-water interface over the past 30 years. His research record illustrates both his productivity and impact: three books, nine books edited, 55 book chapters, and 225 research papers having nearly more than 9,000 citations (ISI count). This has resulted in a research program recognized as one of the world’s finest in geochemistry.”

Sparks has been the recipient of numerous awards including UD’s Francis Alison Award, the highest competitive award given by the University, and he was the first recipient of the UD Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Student Advising and Mentoring Award.

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Soil Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy, Geochemical Society, and European Association of Geochemists.

Other awards include Einstein Professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Liebig Medal from the International Union of Soil Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sterling Hendricks medal, Northeast Association of Graduate Schools Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award, the Soil Science Research Award, the M.L. and Chrystie M. Jackson Soil Science Award, and the American Society of Agronomy’s Environmental Quality Award.

Sparks was president of both the Soil Science Society of America and the International Union of Soil Science. He has served as adviser to 90 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

Douglas Kent of the U.S. Geological Survey and chair of the ACS awards committee said that Sparks “has made far-reaching contributions to understanding the physical and chemical forms of metals in the poorly ordered, steadily changing materials that comprise soils, sediments and aquifers. In addition to these contributions, he has written books that have helped transform the field of soil chemistry and, through his role as an educator and mentor, has inspired a new generation of soil and environmental geochemists.”

Sparks, who has been a member of ACS for over 30 years, said it is “always nice to be recognized by your peers, and certainly it’s nice to be recognized by fellow soil scientists, but it was particularly so in this case because this is in the American Chemical Society. To be recognized by geochemists and environmental chemists means a lot because it shows that the work we’ve done has stretched across disciplines and is not just confined to one area.”

Thoughts on research

Of interdisciplinary research, Sparks said it has always been important but it is of a special significance now because scientists are trying to answer questions related to climate change, soil contamination and water quality that cross scientific boundaries.

When he first started his career, Sparks said the areas were much more in silos but now “there’s a lot of cross-disciplinary work, and so what people do in soil chemistry is no different from geochemistry, environmental chemistry or environmental engineering.”

Sparks said that over the course of his career, he has been a strong proponent of the importance of basic research and providing students the freedom to explore their ideas.

“If we don’t understand what’s happening in a basic way, then it is hard to try to apply it,” he said. “If you’re able to stick with a topic for a long enough period of time and dig deeply, you really understand things at a very fundamental and important way.”

Sparks added, “I’m a strong believer that if you have excellent students and then you give them a lot of freedom — of course I’m always there to help them and give them input and I want to know what they’re doing — but to give them that kind of independence I think has been a major factor as to why they’ve all been able to be placed well and been very successful.”

Current work

Sparks said that his current research interests include the study of contaminants in soils, such as metals like arsenic and chromium, and sea level rise.

“This Mid-Atlantic coast is very susceptible to sea level rise and we have a lot of these old, legacy contaminated industrial sites and it’s not clear at all what’s going to happen when we have inundation of sea water into those areas,” said Sparks, whose research group is trying to understand what happens to those contaminants under different seawater flooding scenarios.

His group has done extensive research since 1991 at synchrotron facilities, located at national laboratories, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. At these facilities they employ powerful X-ray sources to determine the form and reactivity of nutrients and metals in soils and minerals.

Sparks and his group are also investigating carbon cycling in the terrestrial environment, specifically the role of carbon complexation with soil minerals in retaining the carbon in the soil so that it is not emitted into the atmosphere and adding greenhouse gases, he said.

The issue is a big one as soils are a major player when it comes to sequestering carbon but it is hard to predict what will happen to the carbon in the soils in light of climate change.

This process has been studied as part of the Christina River Basin Critical Zone Observatory (CRB-CZO), which was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2009.  Sparks said that much research has been conducted at the CRB-CZO concerning carbon sequestration in different land uses and positions on the landscape.

Sparks said he has been grateful to have been able to spend his career at the University of Delaware.

“UD has just been an incredible place to be. The wonderful support that I’ve received and the great facilities, and the ability to attract really exceptional students and post-docs has been a tremendous asset,” he said.

The medal will be presented to Sparks at a plenary symposium on Monday, March 23, 2015, at the 249th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver. There will be an additional symposium to honor the contributions that Sparks has made to the field of geochemistry.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo courtesy of Donald Sparks

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