Dr Nadia Martinez Villegas is Associate Professor of Geochemistry at the Instituto Potosino de Investigacion Cientifica y Tecnologica in Mexico. She was awarded the Newton Advanced Fellowship in 2015, for a collaboration with Professor Bhaskar Sen Gupta at Heriot-Watt University. Newton Advanced Fellowships are funded by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as part of the Newton Fund, enabling international early to mid-career group leaders to form collaborations with some of the best research groups in the UK. The focus is on research that can contribute to poverty alleviation, and to transfer skills and create knowledge that can lead to changes in the wellbeing of communities and increased economic benefits. It also enables partners to strengthen their research groups and networks, and to establish long-term links with the UK.
What attracted you to apply for a Newton Advanced Fellowship?
The fellowship presented me with an opportunity to establish an international collaboration with the best renowned researchers in the UK.
Tell us a bit about your research.
I study arsenic in the environment. There were unbelievably high concentrations of arsenic reported to be found in the surface and groundwater of a particular semi desert area in Mexico. I wanted to know the origin of that contamination, how it varied over space and time, and the extent and the impact of its pollution. I also wanted to understand why the concentrations were much higher than the concentrations commonly reported in other parts of the world. One of the things that is exciting about my work is the opportunity to discover how arsenic interacts with the ecosystem that survives in such a contaminated environment.
What are the benefits of your collaboration with Heriot-Watt University?
The establishment of international collaboration is a benefit in itself. I am also learning new skills and methodologies, such as exposure and risk calculations, spatial analysis using GIS and some new statistical methods.
What are you hoping your project will achieve over the course of your fellowship?
The support of the Newton Advanced Fellowship is helping me to better understand the chemistry of the contaminant, and in turn how we could help the people affected. The experience of Professor Sen Gupta in helping people to have access to safe water is enabling me to approach the social problematic of arsenic in my study area. Arsenic has contaminated water, soil, crops and, as well as people, as measured by arsenic concentration in their hair. The lack of awareness and poverty in Cerrito Blanco, Matehuala, in the San Luis Potosi state in Mexico seem to combine to exacerbate the arsenic exposure problem.
We are looking to estimate the risks to the rural population exposed to arsenic, and the pollution of arsenic in agricultural soils. We are also looking to educate the population to avoid arsenic, to the extent it is possible to do so. Without the support of this fellowship, I would have not had the opportunity to do this for my people, at least not at this stage of my scientific career.
What impact will your research have in the future?
My research has called attention to a mechanism of mobilization of arsenic that has not been reported before. This is to do with the dissolution of calcium arsenates, which proved to be very high in calcic and gypsic environments. As such a mechanism involves the dissolution of metallurgical waste, we hope that our findings will have impact on the development of better arsenic stabilization techniques that truly result in lower arsenic mobility and concentration in groundwater in semi desert environments.