Phosphorus Sustainability

From left to right: Jacob Jones, Maude Cuchiara and Ross Suzzani

NC State’s Science and Technologies for Phosphorus Sustainability (STEPS) tackles the wicked problem of phosphorus sustainability in new headquarters on Centennial Campus. Wicked problems are social or cultural issues that are difficult or impossible to solve. 

The STEPS Center is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Center (STC). Jacob Jones, a distinguished professor in material science engineering and principal investigator and director of the STEPS Center, explains what NSF STCs are. 

“The NSF STC’s are agency wide, so these are centers that cover very diverse topics or topics that need diverse disciplines to contribute to solutions,” said Jones.

Jones said phosphorus is not widely understood and finding a solution to its sustainability will be difficult. 

“A lot of people in this society recognize carbon and [a] smaller subset understand nitrogen, but not a lot of people understand phosphorus, and it’s a unique problem compared to the other two.” Jones said. “Phosphorus is very rarely found in gaseous form. It’s always solid; it’s therefore difficult to deal with. It’s gonna be a huge task to come up with real meaningful solutions in a five- or 10-year timeframe, but the team is very much committed to this topic. They feel passionate about it, and that’s why we’re moving forward.”

STEPS is focused on reducing human dependence on mined phosphate by 25% and reducing losses of phosphorus to soils and surface waters by 25% in 25 years. 

“To do that, we need not only chemists, materials scientists and agronomists, but we also need to reach out to social scientists and economists to really understand the breadth of the problem in order to make sure what we do today can have a real impact in the 25-year timeframe,” Jones said. “[STEPS] is a collection of graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, senior faculty and early career faculty that all share this vision and common research agenda and we’re all passionate about pushing it forward.”

Jones explained the importance of the new research center. 

“[The new center] is the largest research center in the world that is tackling this problem, and we made a case to the NSF that a center of this magnitude is required because of the diverse perspectives that we need to engage in problem solving,” Jones said. “So I would say the significance is we have a critical mass of resources where we can really make a difference. The students that graduate from STEPS, whether they’re an undergraduate student or a graduate student, should be equipped with some skills to cross disciplines and solve additional complex wicked [problems].”

Ross Sozzani, associate professor in plant and microbial biology and co-deputy director of STEPS, explains the impact the STEPS headquarters will have.

“STEPS will really be the lead in many aspects of science and technology, but also for the workforce development,” Sozzani said. “I think that the other programs will see STEPS as the success story of truly interdisciplinary science where we have the natural sciences as well as humanities. The [University Plant Sciences Building] is an intersectional space with state-of-the-art facilities, and the activities that are going to be there for STEPS will be extremely impactful for the NC State community, the RDU area and the national and global area. Phosphorus is the vehicle for convergent science.”

Three characteristics of all STC’s are education in human resources, broadening participation and knowledge transfer.

“The education in human resources is really in training our graduate students,” Cuchiara said. “We’re really interested in training them to be convergent researchers, being able to navigate between disciplines. We’re broadening participation. We're incredibly committed to increasing the diversity of all the participants at the center as well as the programming of the center, including groups that are underrepresented currently in STEM fields.”

Julianna Nieuwsma, a third-year PhD student studying learning and teaching in STEM, is a graduate student working with STEPS. Though she does not have a background in phosphorus, Nieuwsma has knowledge in communication, which is a large part of problem solving in phosphorus sustainability. 

“I have no background in phosphorus, but that is the idea of convergent research, that you’re bringing people in from completely different backgrounds,” Nieuwsma said. “It has to be tackled from the science and engineering side to find ways to extract phosphorus that’s been used and there’s also a lot to do from the human side of things like policy makers and working with farmers and working with people.”

One of NSF’s big ideas is growing convergence research as a possible answer to solving wicked problems. Nieuwsma’s role as a graduate student with STEPS is to study convergent research.

“Convergent research is still very new, so my role as a PhD student is to help study convergent research and, specifically, the graduate students that are involved,” Nieuwsma said. “Another part of this grant was a diversity focus, so not just studying convergent research but also diversity in this environment.”

Sozzani explains important geographical areas that have been defined in which STEPS can put its focus into through its research. 

“We have a scenario where we can really test and apply our science, technology and innovation to this three fold bottom line from urban, aquatic and rural aspects to which the phosphorus problem is important to address,” Sozzani said. 

Jones talks about the three places STEPS is doing research in with partnering institutions. 

“One of those geographical places is the Tidewater Research Station which is in eastern North Carolina,” Jones said. “Another one is the south Florida ecosystem which has a lot of water and a lot of phosphorus in their water, and then another one is an urban center out in [Phoenix, Arizona].” 

Jones said he would like to get the NC State community involved with STEPS. 

“I would like the NC State community to know that we want their engagement in this project,” Jones said. “We need stakeholders from various industries, we need academics from disciplines, graduate students from different disciplines and undergraduates from different disciplines. We really want to engage the community in what we’re doing.”

Visit the STEPS website and the STEPS Twitter page, @STEPS_stc, to learn more about STEPS and the new NSF center.