Applied research for a healthy environment

The love of the natural world drew Geoff Rhodes to MSU to study bio-chemistry as an undergraduate student in the Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He's now in the 2nd of his 5-year master’s & doctoral program in environmental toxicology.

Geoff Rhodes

For as long as he can remember, the outdoors has occupied a central place in Geoff Rhodes’ life. Growing up in the small town of Pinckney, Michigan, Rhodes’ youth was filled with hiking, fishing, kayaking and everything else the lush environment of the Great Lakes State has to offer.

That love of the natural world drew him to MSU, where he studied bio­chemistry as an undergraduate student in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. While taking an elective course on environmental geochemistry, he realized he could pair his scientific interests with his longtime passion. That led him to the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“MSU has a really good reputation for the agricultural sciences, as well as the applied sciences,” Rhodes said. “It’s rare to see a university with such a strong background, as well as such a strong, supportive community around it.”

Joining the lab of Hui Li in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, Rhodes is now in the second of his five-year combined master’s and doctoral program in environmental toxicology. He studies pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), a group of chem­icals about which the environmental and human health impacts remain largely unknown.

PPCPs are common compounds used by humans for cosmetic or personal health purposes, as well as in agriculture to promote the health or growth of livestock. According to Rhodes, PPCPs enter the environment through recycled water and biosolids —dried, occasionally composted animal waste—that are often used for irri­gation and as fertilizer, respectively.

This is an emerging issue. Little is known about how PPCPs impact plants or the people who eat them. There have been few efforts to regulate their use, and current wastewater treatment processes vary widely in their ability to remove PPCPs, ranging from one 1 to 90 percent efficiency. Rhodes is conducting hydroponic experiments on common raw vegetable crops, such as carrots and lettuce, to study how PPCPs are absorbed into and translocated throughout the plant.

“Right now we have no good idea of the mechanism for how plants uptake PPCPs,” Rhodes said. “If we’re going to understand how these compounds impact us, we need to first know how they impact our crops.”

MSU is one of the few places in the country to offer a program specifically in environmental toxicology, without which it would be much harder for people like Rhodes to search for answers to these emerging questions.

“I love being able to conduct applied research that has the potential to help us maintain a healthy environment. There are so many unknowns in this field right now, and this is one of the few places where we can really dig into them.”

This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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