I am Rochelle Joie A. Saracanlao currently residing in Belgium as a PhD student/researcher. I hail from the Philippines, a country best known for its abundance of gorgeous beaches and warm people. For many tourists Philippines is a paradise, but for majority of the locals it is not the case. One of the poorest sectors are the rice farmers whose income from tilling the soil is not enough to make ends meet. We are one of the biggest importers of rice even though the largest research for the crop, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has its headquarter in our country. Adding to the problem is that the number of farmers continues to dwindle as younger population opts for a more lucrative careers in the cities and even abroad.
The stigma that a career in agriculture will bring you nowhere stuck in my young mind. I grew up in a rural agricultural area surrounded by rice, buffalos, and mango trees and where houses are made up of bamboo, palm trees and coconut lumber. It was a good place to grew up as a kid where climbing trees, shaping clayey soils into houses, and swimming in pristine rives is a weekend life. But when asked what I want to do in life when we grow up, my response will either be a doctor, lawyer, or a school teacher and not a career that has something to do with rice, buffalos or mangoes. Where to look for inspiration in agriculture when almost everyone is encouraging you to shy from the soil? I did not even meet a soil scientist until I was doing my internship at IRRI during my college years.
But later on as I connect the dots over my career choices, I realized I was being pulled into a fated career that was already laid before my eyes when I was kid. I finished BS Agricultural Chemistry from the best agricultural school in the country, the University of the Philippines Los Baños. I was supposed to be a medical doctor or a lawyer after college because of the associated prestige. However, during interviews I cannot find the answer in my heart why I want to heal people or lay out justice for the indigent. Lost with what to do with life I enrolled in MS Soil Science (major in Soil Chemistry) at the last minute without really thinking hard why soils among the branches of agricultural chemistry. After that I applied for a teaching position at the same university with the intention to even further my career in soil chemistry. I realized that being in soil science was the closest I can get to serving the country and help the backbone that puts food in our table.
So when a Phd position was posted about soil chemistry in KU Leuven, I did not think twice about applying. The research is about investigating the effect of applying vivianite and P-loaded Fe(III) oxides in the bioavailability and dynamics of P in anaerobic systems. The topic itself is interesting especially coming from a developing country in which the potential of agriculture is still not expressed to its full potential. The usage of recycled fertilizers such as vivianite and P-loaded Fe(III) oxides in rice systems under soils that fixes P strongly would spell the difference between a good and a bad crop yield.
To answer the research question whether these recycled P products have the potential to be P fertilizers, one of the major experiments is that recycled P products will be made into granular/pellet fertilizers and be subsequently tested for its solubility using a continuous, sink-based extraction (Fe-bag method). A synthesized ferrihydrite will be placed in a dialysis membrane and will be used to trap P released from recycled P products. This is correlated to plant P uptake which will also be determined periodically by other P tests (e.g., diffusive gradient in films technique (DGT) and Olsen) during crop experiments.
Secondly, diffusion of recycled P fertilizers from its point of application will be visualized using DGT after a given incubation time. The P captured onto the DGT will then be visualized with molybdate blue, which will reflect how P diffuses.
Another experiment will be to investigate techniques how to upcycle the trapped P from Fe-rich materials to valuable P fertilizers. Fe-rich materials that have been used to trap P in different systems (for example in agricultural drainage ditches and in filters to purify nutrient-rich waste streams) will be collected. Then, in the laboratory, the P trapped by these Fe-rich materials will be extracted in alkali media and the extracted P will be resorbed on LDH materials, that then can be used as P-fertilizers. The solubility of these materials will then be tested, to provide an estimate of the plant availability.
Lastly, crop experiments in the plant growth chamber and in the greenhouse will be established to determine the efficiency of the different vivianite and P-loaded Fe-III oxides as fertilizers.
By the time I am finish with my PhD, all of these knowledge will be of big help in understanding how to effectively manage recycled P fertilizers in lowland rice systems. This is also critical in boosting the research area of increasing rice yield through P fertilizer application, more so in a country where rice lies in the heart of every breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even snack times.
I am strongly motivated to pursue my Phd abroad despite the obstacles along the way. Getting a Phd degree is challenging, more so if it is in another country miles away from family and friends, with food and language that is entirely different to what I am used to. The current corona pandemic even adds another level of difficulty of coping with Phd life abroad.
However, I am always reminded of the reason why I came here to Belgium – to learn and grow. Dive deeper onto the Fe-P chemistry in rice systems in order to encourage farmers to see the potential of rice farming through better fertilizer management and to better protect our pristine rivers from eutrophication. Learn about the technical skills of chemical analysis and instrumentation to pass this knowledge to aspiring Filipino soil chemists. Grow personally and professionally of which this Phd environment is the perfect catalyst to further explore my potential as a soil chemist. All of these a salute to the young, curious me who loved playing with soils and who wants to prove that there is a promise in working in the agriculture sector.