Volume 11, Number 12 February 20, 2004

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Soil science studies will help Brazilian agriculture

By Amie Lynn Shirkie

Graduate student Carmem Masutti.

Graduate student Carmem Masutti.

Photo by Amie Lynn Shirkie

For graduate student Carmem Masutti, almost no aspiration is ever too far out of reach. As she finishes her doctoral work at the U of S, it would seem that her dreams of making a difference are soon to be realized.

Masutti completed her BSA in Agriculture and her M.Sc. in Soil Science in Brazil before beginning her doctoral studies in soil science in 1998. For Masutti, studying at the U of S was “a long time dream” come true: “For seven years I worked hard on my CV to make it competitive so I could come here.”

Concerned about agricultural issues in her homeland, Masutti decided to examine the fate of an insecticide used in sugar cane plantations in Brazil. Fipronil is an insecticide used to control pests in more than 60 countries.

With little information published on the matter and the results of significant use to the agricultural industry, Masutti wanted to examine how the chemical behaves when it hits the soil.

According to Masutti, as well as being effective against pests, a good chemical should be retained by the soil long enough for degradation to take place over time. This prevents the chemical from accumulating in the food chain and reaching water resources through leaching.

Under the supervision of Prof. Ken van Rees and Adjunct Prof. Ahmet Mermut, Masutti ascertained the capacity of Brazilian soil to retain the insecticide. She found that mineral particles were very involved in the retention of fipronil, and that the chemical’s adsorption was due to the presence of iron minerals with a poor crystalline structure.

Masutti also studied the degradation of fipronil. She discovered that microbes in the soil break down the fipronil to produce a compound that can be readily absorbed by microaggregates. As a result, the chemical will not leach out of the soil, and won’t get into water resources.

Masutti’s research led her to the conclusion that fipronil is retained and degraded in the Brazilian soil at a moderate rate, and is suitable for use on sugar cane plantations. Sugar cane crops are a significant segment of Brazil’s economy, so Masutti believes her research will have an important influence on management and agronomic practices in that industry.

Masutti had at one time considered entering medical school, but after a “horrifying” experience with dissection in her high school biology class, she chose to study agriculture instead. Describing herself as being “very analytical as a person,” she says “I enjoy looking at processes. This is the problem, let’s see what’s causing it. Soil science is very appealing for this.” Masutti is also interested in soil science for its importance in environmental issues.

Beyond that, she is also passionate about human rights, and is especially interested in social justice projects in developing countries.

“I dream that we should have a fair society for everybody, that there will be a better position for the poor.” Masutti comes from Northeastern Brazil, a part of the country which she says is “always associated with poverty,” and whose residents sometimes face discrimination.

“My dream is to go back and work with the people of the Northeast. I want to see that my brothers will have job opportunities, so they won’t have to go to the south and leave everybody behind.”

Masutti will return to Brazil to do her post-doctoral fellowship at the Federal University of Pernambuco, where she hopes eventually to gain a permanent position as a professor.

Of her many ambitions, Masutti says teaching is the greatest: “Teaching is food for my soul and my professional career too. I really like to interact with students, to learn from them and to teach them something too.”

Amie Lynn Shirkie writes graduate student profiles for the College of Graduate Studies & Research.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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