Cultivating Solutions: Dr. Alicja Babst-Kostecka’s Journey in Sustainable Mining and Environmental Science

July 5, 2024
Alicja Babst-Kostecka, Ph.D.

Alicja Babst-Kostecka, Ph.D.

Alicja Babst-Kostecka holds a Ph.D. in biology from the Institute of Botany at the Polish Academy of Sciences. As an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science (ENVS) at the University of Arizona, Dr. Babst addresses environmental challenges associated with mining, land reclamation, and the life cycle of metals. 

At the core of her research interests lies the exploration of plant-based solutions for metal recovery, particularly focusing on the removal and reuse of metals from dryland ecosystems. Her role as the director of UA's Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining (CESM) underscores her commitment to advancing scientific knowledge and promoting sustainable practices within the mining industry and beyond.

What drew you to join the School of Mining & Mineral Resources?

I was drawn to join the School of Mining & Mineral Resources because of its dedication to advancing sustainable mining practices and its emphasis on integrating cutting-edge research with real-world applications. The collaborative and interdisciplinary environment here allows us to engage in initiatives aimed at mitigating the environmental impacts of mining while leveraging our diverse expertise to meet the mining industry's growing demand for environmentally friendly solutions. 

This aligns perfectly with my academic pursuits and resonates with the mission of the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining (CESM), where we develop research and educational initiatives through partnerships between academia and industry. Additionally, I am particularly compelled by the opportunity to contribute to the school’s educational and outreach initiatives. By integrating the latest research findings and industry best practices into curriculum and internship programs, we can equip our graduates to effectively tackle the complex challenges facing the mining sector today. This dedication to education not only advances the field but also promotes sustainable practices that will benefit future generations and the environment.

What feeds your passion for research and teaching?

My passion for research is driven by a deep curiosity about how plants adapt to extreme environmental conditions, especially in polluted and contaminated habitats. I am deeply motivated to translate our scientific discoveries of the genetic and mechanistic bases of metal tolerance into actionable phytoremediation strategies. Applied research like this is not only attractive to me, but I also find it very appealing for UA students who strive to tackle environmental challenges in their careers. In my teaching role, I enthusiastically communicate the discoveries of my Plant-Soil-Environment Lab to students and actively engage them in hands-on experience with societally relevant projects. This dual role of research and teaching allows me to generate and share knowledge while inspiring the next generation of scientists and practitioners. Witnessing students develop their passion and expertise in environmental science is incredibly rewarding.

What drew you to your focus on plant adaptation to changing environmental conditions, metal tolerance and hyperaccumulation, plant-soil interactions in metalliferous habitats, and phytoremediation and restoration of arid lands?

My focus on these areas stems from a fascination with the resilience and adapta

bility of plants in harsh environments. I am interested in the genetic and physiological mechanisms, and plant-microbial interactions, that enable certain plant species to thrive in soils with high metal content, which are toxic to most living organisms. Plants capable of tolerating and hyperaccumulating metals have a selective advantage in such soils. This unique adaptation not only piqued my scientific curiosity but also highlighted the potential of these plants in environmental remediation. 

My research program responds to the growing call for actionable science to support the reclamation of degraded, metal-contaminated systems. To address these challenges, my Plant-Soil-Environment Lab develops essential knowledge and innovative plant-based solutions to bolster phytoremediation, which is particularly challenging in drylands. Plant-based remediation technologies can mitigate health risks from trace metal elements by immobilizing contaminants in root tissues and in the rhizosphere (phytostabilization), or by extracting them from the soil and allocating them to harvestable above-ground tissues (phytoextraction). This focus allows us to provide practical, sustainable solutions for the restoration of contaminated lands, thus improving environmental health and supporting communities affected by mining activities. The potential to contribute to both scientific understanding and real-world environmental solutions is what drew me to this field.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in the mining and minerals industry?

For students interested in pursuing a career in the mining and minerals industry, I believe it is essential to cultivate a strong foundation in both scientific knowledge and practical skills. Understanding the complexities of geological processes, mineral extraction, and environmental impacts is crucial. I encourage students to engage deeply with their coursework, seek out hands-on experiences through internships and fieldwork, and stay abreast of technological advancements in the industry. 

As a faculty member in the Environmental Science Department and the director of the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining, I emphasize the importance of developing a strong ethical compass and a sense of stewardship for the environment. This includes learning about its characteristics, processes, and vulnerability, as well as sustainable practices and the ways in which the mining industry can minimize its ecological footprint while still meeting economic and societal needs. Networking with professionals in the field, participating in relevant professional organizations, and attending industry conferences can also provide valuable insights and opportunities. Lastly, be curious and proactive in seeking out knowledge and opportunities. The mining and minerals industry is continuously evolving, and those who are adaptable, knowledgeable, and committed to sustainable practices will be well-positioned to make meaningful contributions and advance their careers.

What role do you see your work playing in improving environmental and human health and the School of Mining & Mineral Resources in addressing global challenges such as population growth and climate change?

The fourth industrial revolution comes with a rapidly increasing demand for metals as the U.S. and global economies strive to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Traditional hard rock mining and mineral resource exploitation create an extensive legacy of land degradation and potential contamination in the form of toxic metals in soil and water. Our research and educational initiatives at CESM aim to provide the mining industry with the best possible data, methods, and process understanding to address sustainability issues associated with mining and manage potentially hazardous sites. The ultimate goal is to mitigate the environmental legacies of mining, thereby improving landscape and human health. We are doing so through effective teaching, actionable science, and its translation to public and private stakeholders. 

Additionally, my lab focuses on advancing our understanding of plant-soil interactions in mining-impacted environments and developing effective phytoremediation strategies to mitigate the environmental impacts of mining activities. One promising "green" technology we are working on is phytomining, which uses plants to extract metals from soils. This approach has the potential to complement traditional mining methods and become a source of critical metals. However, plant-based technologies remain underdeveloped in the U.S., and actionable science is needed to create the necessary understanding and guidance for phytomining. Developing this understanding and increasing awareness of phytomining's potential are key objectives for my team. Together, through rigorous scientific inquiry, innovative solutions, and collaborative partnerships, we can address global challenges and make a lasting impact on our communities and ecosystems.

More information about the Plant-Soil-Environment Laboratory: Plant-Soil-Environment Laboratory

More information about the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining: Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining