March 2023

Dr. Yael Zvulunov

Dr. Yael Zvulunov a Va’adia-BARD postdoc fellow at Colorado State University is studying sustainable slow-release fertilizers and is working to understand and evaluate their impact on pollutants in the water-soil-crop system? 

Yael Zvulunov

Colorado State

Dr. Yael Zvulunov a Va’adia-BARD postdoc fellow at Colorado State University is studying sustainable slow-release fertilizers and is working to understand and evaluate their impact on pollutants in the water-soil-crop system? 

What is the focus of your postdoc work? 

My focus is identifying how sustainable slow-release fertilizers affect the distribution of mobile pollutants in the water-soil-crop system. Irrigation with treated (reclaimed) wastewater is necessary to address ever-increasing water demands, but it can also introduce harmful chemicals that were not removed during wastewater treatment. Modern technologies, like clay and biochar-based slow-release fertilizers, could interact with these chemicals and affect their dispersal in waterways and their uptake into the products we eat. Understanding these interactions is a crucial step towards developing truly safe and sustainable solutions.

When did your interest in sustainable solutions start?

In a sense, I have been always interested. I grew up amid concerns over the ozone layer and overpopulation. I became an informed citizen with the internet revolution, which spread worrying global news daily. But it also helped raise awareness to the concept of sustainable solutions. By the time I had to choose my undergraduate major, it was clear to me that my desire was to help the planet. While I continued my education the idea of working towards sustainable solutions became more tangible.

What got you interested in studying this topic?

Israel is heavily reliant on reclaimed water for irrigation, and one of the major concerns surrounding the reclamation process is the presence of residual micropollutants. During my PhD I worked extensively with modified clays as adsorbents for various pollutants. I was impressed by how many applications clays have in other fields, including slow-release formulations and soil amendments. However, research on each of these capacities has been done in isolation, without considering cross-interferences under real-life conditions. I am a huge believer in sustainable innovations, especially those that improve resource utilization (e.g., controlled nutrient release to prevent leaching, or repurposing waste into biochar). I think that one of the main barriers to their acceptance is how challenging it is to characterize their performance in complex systems. For my postdoc project, I wanted to take a step further in this direction and explore how the combination of water and nutrient management methods influences pollutant mobility.

What are your plans once you complete your postdoctoral work?

Once I complete my postdoctoral work, I hope to continue to direct my skills into developing sustainable solutions that are practical and adoptable, either as part of an academic institution or an industrial organization.

How do you see the current situation of sustainable development in agriculture?

Our agricultural practices derive from years of habit and tradition, scaled up to feed an exponentially growing population. As such, they have not yet adapted to allow responsible use of resources, and the agricultural sector is currently the largest single driver of anthropogenic climate change. Habits and traditions can be difficult to overcome, posing a major obstacle to the adoption of greener agricultural techniques. The need to have a joint discussion that will consider scientific advancements, policymakers, industry goals, farmers’ needs, and production demands also complicates the development of good sustainable solutions. However, the vulnerability of agriculture to the effects of climate change is pushing all stakeholders to recognize the urgency in moving towards sustainability. I believe that the coming decade will see great leaps in this arena.

How do you oversee the outputs project to be applied on the field? 

The knowledge gained from this study will have immediate implications on the potential risks and benefits of novel slow-release fertilizers as attenuators of environmental pollution and human exposure. In addition, components such as biochar – which is often produced from anthropogenic waste – might still contain recalcitrant pollutants and heavy metals. Using innovative analytical tools available at Prof. Thomas Borch’s lab at Colorado State University, we will be able to provide a thorough assessment of the extent to which these might be released into the environment when the biochar is used as a fertilizer. This will produce guidelines for biochar production and land application, which are highly needed as biochar is becoming a popular soil additive.

What tip would you give someone just beginning a career in agricultural research?

Find what excites you – whether it is a topic or a conceptual goal – and make sure that the work you do addresses that. Try to be familiar with what others in your department and your field are doing: agricultural science is exceptionally interdisciplinary, and the more methods and perspectives you are exposed to, the better you will be equipped to plan your own path. Finally, find good mentors and share your struggles with your peers – often you will find that you all share the same doubts.