Farhana Islam

Course: PhD in Microbial controls on the Geochemical Behaviour of Arsenic in Ground water

"The opportunity to work in Manchester was also very appealing as I would have the opportunity to work in a newly built laboratory with high profile facilities in the Williamson Research Centre for Molecular and Environmental Sciences."

 

"I graduated from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1999 with a first class MSc degree in Microbiology. Then I joined the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission in January 2000 as a Scientific Officer and continued research work until August 2001. I received an offer to do a PhD at The University of Manchester under the supervision of Dr Jonathan Lloyd and Dr David Polya in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES). I took the offer seriously, because the project focused on groundwater pollution by arsenic, a topic of great importance to my country. The opportunity to work in Manchester was also very appealing as I would have the opportunity to work in a newly built laboratory with high profile facilities in the Williamson Research Centre for Molecular and Environmental Sciences.

"My chosen topic of research was the microbial controls on the geochemical behaviour of arsenic in groundwater. The widespread use of these arsenic-rich groundwaters for drinking or irrigation purposes has already had devastating impact on millions of people in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Over the last decade or so, there have been a large number of internationally published studies aimed at establishing why and how this arsenic is present in such higher concentrations in these groundwater systems and, to provide information on the development of suitable remediation strategies. I focused on a detailed characterization of the mechanism of arsenic release using a combination of techniques like microbiology, molecular biology and geochemistry. A number of investigators had previously hypothesized that microbial reduction of arsenic-containing iron minerals in aquifers is responsible for increased arsenic solubilization into drinking water and I aimed to determine the role of specialist anaerobic 'metal-reducing' bacteria in arsenic mobilization. These organisms are adapted to life underground in the subsurface, away from oxygen, where they gain energy by reducing Fe-containing minerals. It was a challenging, multidisciplinary project that involved close collaborations with a range of staff and students in SEES.

"On a regular basis, I had to discuss the progress of work either in group-based meetings or separately with my co-supervisors, Journal club meetings were also organized regularly so that the whole of the geomicrobiology group in the School could stay informed of developments across the disciplines that underpin this research area. I have also been lucky to work with excellent staff here who have helped me to learn many new techniques including microbiological, molecular ecology, geochemical, mineralogical, spectroscopic and microscopy techniques. It was a wonderful time, the research provided excellent results, including the first direct microbiological evidence for the existence of anaerobic metal-reducing bacteria that liberate arsenic into groundwater in sediments from the Bengal Basin [ Nature, 430, 68 (2004)]. The Nature publication was a joint effort and the co-authors were absolutely amazing! After I had finished work on this publication, I did some more work on the detailed mechanisms of arsenic-microbe interactions in sediments, that have resulted in three more papers.

"This work could not have been possible without continual support, encouragement and suggestions provided by my supervisor Dr Jon Lloyd. His patience to discuss any problems helped me through some of the difficult times during this project. Enormous support and advice from my co-supervisor Dr Dave Polya was also inspirational. The Head of School, Director of the Williamson Research Centre for Molecular Environmental Science, post-graduate director, department administrators, my lab-mates, office-mates, always stayed beside me and encouraged me to continue the PhD work.

"During my PhD work, I was encouraged to attend several conferences, eg, ISEG (Edinburgh), Goldschmidt (Copenhagen), Minsoc (Bath) to present my work on a national/international stage. This work and the presentations could not have continued without the financial support from a Bangladeshi Govt Fellowship, ORS grant, an award from the Vice Chancellor for academic excellence (best overseas student in the Faculty of Science and Engineering), Hitchon fund and Minsoc Postgrad bursary and also by grants from the following research councils: EPSRC, NERC, CCLRC."

 

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