Grant-winning Ph.D. student has a passion for science and environment – UTSA Today

Grant-winning Ph.D. student has a passion for science and environment | UTSA Today | UTSA | The University of Texas at San Antonio

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Friday, July 31, 2020


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JULY 31, 2020 — When Tom Varner started a trip to Spain in 2015, he was an undergraduate at the University of Mississippi who intended on becoming a pharmacist. But when he left the European country, he knew he wanted to make a major change.

“While hiking in Spain I realized that my passions for science and the natural environment could be applied through the study of geology,” said Varner, who is now working on his Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering at UTSA.

When he returned to the U.S. from his trip, he changed his undergraduate major to geology. And the more he learned about the science, the more passionate he became.

“Geology is a fascinating field involving the study of some of society’s most pressing issues,” he explained. “As the human population grows, there is an increased strain on our relationship with the natural environment. Problems such as climate change, energy, mineral resources and water resources are all addressed through the study of geology. The application of the study of geology toward real-world issues provides a fulfilling line of work.” 


“It represents a promise…to benefit the academic community and those who suffer from inadequate drinking water.”



After completing his undergraduate degree, Varner wanted to continue his education. “I wanted to do research in a field of geology that was societally relevant and could improve people’s livelihoods,” he said. “I found my place here at UTSA conducting research under Dr. Saugata Datta, studying the transportation of arsenic in the drinking water of aquifers in Bangladesh.”

Varner was recently awarded a graduate student research grant from the Geological Society of America. The grant will assist the department’s existing National Science Foundation–funded research by examining the mechanisms that control the release and sequestration of arsenic along the Meghna River in Bangladesh. Long-term exposure to arsenic, which is toxic when ingested, can lead to cancer, epigenetic defects, vascular disease and other health ailments.

“Millions of people in Bangladesh are afflicted with arsenic-contaminated drinking water derived from the groundwater,” Varner said. “Surface waters have become contaminated with pathogens due to dense populations and lack of sanitation practices. With no safe alternatives for drinking water, this research will further the understanding of the processes controlling the fate and transport of arsenic, which is imperative to providing possible solutions.”

The presence of arsenic in groundwater has been linked to high concentrations of iron oxides in sediments. “These iron oxides can sequester dissolved arsenic and consequentially release the arsenic upon dissolution of the iron oxide,” Varner explained. “Zones of high iron concentrations along the riverbank that control the transportation of the arsenic have been termed permeable natural reactive barriers. This study will investigate the chemical interaction between the sediment and the water under dynamic river conditions to define the occurrence and formation of [one of these barriers]. Understanding the processes that are responsible for high arsenic concentrations in the drinking waters will provide knowledge to be used for the adequate protection and management of these water resources for the people of Bangladesh.”


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To Varner, being awarded the grant is confirmation that his research has a societal and academic significance outside of the laboratory. “This award was an honor to receive, but it represents a promise to adequately complete the study to benefit the academic community and those who suffer from inadequate drinking water,” he said.

After completing the Ph.D. program in 2023, Varner plans to pursue a career involving the management and protection of water resources. “Water is required to sustain life and is a basic human right,” he said. “I would love to be in a position where I would be able to work toward providing clean and reliable drinking water for afflicted communities.”

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