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Radioactive Sunflowers

Opportunity Knocks for this Honors Alumnus

Sometimes brothers can be a real pain, but in the case of Zak Webber, a recently graduated Honors student, an email from his brother changed the course of his life. The subject line read, “STEM teachers needed for Native American Indian Services test prep,” and Zak, despite feeling underqualified, applied. Zak was offered a position teaching water science to children in Blanding, Utah. That position led him to a thesis project that was published in a world-renowned environmental science magazine and a new passion to motivate his graduate school journey.

In his teaching position in Blanding, Utah, Zak found success in implementing an incentivized reading program and through teaching his students science. After being warned that the students could be rebellious, he was amazed to see how hardworking they could be when they were given a chance to succeed. When they formed scientific hypotheses in class, they brought up valid points that even Zak had not considered. Their experiences growing up on the reservation provided life stories and knowledge that piqued Zak’s interest in health disparities in rural communities. Stepping away from his teacher role, Zak also took the time to be a mentor to his students and took them on field trips, which helped him understand his students better. The students not only raced to meet their academic goals, they also petitioned to form a running club at their school after joining Zak for his daily runs.

Zak left that teaching position unsatisfied. He wanted to do more for indigenous people, especially relating to the health of the rural population. As a Molecular Biology student, Zak had worked in Dr. Marc Hansen’s lab researching DNA structures, and he worked with Dr. Jason Adams to formulate a better preservation liquid for keeping anatomy cadavers moisturized. Neither of these projects had immediate connections to rural health, though. After learning about the toxic levels of uranium in the Dine peoples’ water sources, Zak knew what problem he wanted to tackle. Inspired by BYU Honors’ interdisciplinary approach, he decided to literally and metaphorically go door-to-door to environmental science professors to propose his idea. Ultimately, Dr. Ben Abbott, professor of Plant and Wildlife Sciences, agreed to oversee the project.

So what was his grand idea to remove uranium from the soil? Sunflowers. Zak had seen a paper that showed how sunflowers extract uranium from the soil around them through their root systems. He also had the perfect crew to help him implement his plan: the high school students at Chinle High School. From teaching in Blanding, he had learned that students were a great resource for change in their communities, so Zak knew he wanted students to be the primary workforce in his project. Those students became his legs during COVID when travel was difficult. They helped plant the sunflowers, record measurements, and relay the results to Zak. What started off as an email opportunity became an incredible relationship that trained future scientists and assisted current ones.

The project itself was ingenious. Sunflowers are hyperaccumulators, which means they can collect large amounts of toxic material such as lead, zinc, and uranium without poisoning themselves. The process of removing toxic materials using plants is called phytoremediation. Sunflowers are also incredibly hardy plants and can survive on only an inch of water a week. This combination made them the optimal plant to use in the Navajo Nation, where there is little rainfall and lots of uranium and arsenic left over from abandoned 20th century mines. Planting the sunflowers is also a cheap option for nuclear cleanup, the other solution being to dig up and replace mass amounts of soil.

Here is the thing about science, though: sometimes it just doesn't work out how you expect it to. In the case of sunflowers in the Navajo Nation, the uranium levels in the water and soil actually increased with the planting of the flowers. Though these are less than optimal results, it did relay important information about the efficiency of sunflowers as nuclear cleaners in different climates. The information was so pertinent that the critically acclaimed journal Science of the Total Environment published the study. He was part of two publications while at BYU, which can be found here and here.

Zak’s relationship with the Dine people did not just end up in a publication; it also opened a connection that serves both sides. When the COV-SARS-2 virus hit America, the Navajo Nation did not have adequate medical supplies to ensure the safety of its people. Zak was able to facilitate a shipment of gloves, antiseptic materials, and other medical supplies from the Life Sciences Department at BYU. It was for work like this that Zak was nominated as a Distinguished Undergraduate Researcher. This love of serving others also translated into Zak receiving the Heart and Hands Award from Lieutenant Governor Cox for his work as an ABA Therapy Technician for children with autism.

After he graduated last year, Zak went on to work as a high-throughput sequencing technician at Recursion Pharmaceuticals for a year while applying to medical schools. He is now in his first year of an National Institute of Health funded MD/PhD program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Inspired by his Honors thesis and teaching opportunity in the Navajo Nation, Zak hopes to specialize in family or emergency room medicine. For his research emphasis, he wants to further characterize the effects of teratogens (birth defect-cueing materials) like uranium on rural communities.

Zak graduated in April 2020 with his BS in Molecular Biology. He is from Payson, Utah and served a mission in Barcelona, Spain. He now attends the University of Arizona in Tucson as a first year MD/Phd student. When he isn't studying, which is often, he enjoys rock climbing, trail running, and training for triathlons with his wife. He also claims that he can still make a mean raisin bread.