Class Act: Sam Schmitz – Big discoveries in little worlds

There are still some mysteries left in the world—even if, as Sam Schmitz has learned, you sometimes have to dive pretty deep to find them.

One place abounding with mystery is Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. Divided among four countries, it is the world’s second-largest, second-deepest freshwater lake. Its depth (4,820 feet) and relative calmness discourage water layers from mixing, and oxygen is scarce. But life perseveres, even thrives, in these conditions.

Schmitz, a senior majoring in microbiology and French (with an honors in research), has had the oppor- tunity to study this remarkable body of water without actually going there. As the recipient of an Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program grant from the American Society of Microbiology, Schmitz is analyzing water samples collected at Lake Tanganyika by UW–Madison limnologist Peter McIntyre and his team.

Using DNA sequencing, Schmitz has found that the deepest depths of the lake are home to incredibly diverse microbial communities. He and his fellow researchers have already identified numerous unclassified bacteria.

“The microbiome of the lake has not yet been thoroughly studied, so the lake may hold many more unique, undiscovered bacteria,” says Schmitz—a revelation that amazes him, given how much is known about other ecosystems. These same microbes, he says, may drive the processes that sustain life in the lake’s depths.

As his research project, Schmitz hopes to build on existing knowledge of the dynamics between microbial communities and their ecosystems. “I have always been interested in microbial communities and their interactions with the environment,” Schmitz says.

Such research comes at a time when the lake’s fragile ecosystems are most vulnerable, Schmitz notes. Climate change threatens to disrupt a natural order eons in the making. Better understanding the role of microbes in the cycling of lake nutrients could help us understand how Lake Tanganyika currently supports such abundant life, Schmitz says.

As a fresh graduate this summer, Schmitz plans to work in industry for a few years before returning to school—and his passion for research—to pursue a Ph.D.

Using DNA sequencing, Schmitz has found that the deepest depths of the lake are home to incredibly diverse microbial communities.
Photo credit: Sam Schmitz

Unintended Consequences: Democratic Republic of the Congo

For Dominic Parker, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, a research foray into mining practices in Africa dug up some unexpected findings.

Parker wanted to study effects that recent U.S. legislation might have on “conflict minerals”—raw materials from parts of the world where conflict affects their mining and trading—from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a large nation in central Africa that has experienced decades of war and corruption.

In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd–Frank Act, aimed at making significant changes to financial regulation. Tucked into the complex legislation is Section 1502, which requires manufacturers to do due diligence on the sources of minerals used in the production of electronics, including transparent reporting of whether their purchase of minerals might be financing warlords or militia groups in the DRC.

Parker set out to study the consequences that Section 1502 might have in places far removed from Washington, D.C. What he found, in collaboration with CALS colleagues Jeremy Foltz and David Elsea, and with fellow researcher Bryan Vadheim, is that the legislation has had a ripple effect with ramifications for violence and health in the DRC. Their work has been published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists and the Journal of Law and Economics.

Tin, tungsten and tantalum—known as the “three Ts” of conflict minerals—are linchpins in the production of everyday electronic goods, including smartphones and laptops. But they are typically harvested in areas where government rule is limited or altogether absent. In this vacuum, militia groups form and instill a crude type of order.

Rather than put their reputations at risk, many corporations simply chose to source their minerals elsewhere. As they pulled out of the DRC, mining became a less lucrative industry—so militia groups started to relocate, becoming more desperate and inflicting more violence and predation upon civilians.

At the same time, the domestic government of the DRC banned noncorporate mining—work that is usually done with pickaxes and shovels, often called “artisanal” mining. In many parts of the DRC, this type of hard labor represents the “only game in town” in terms of employment, according to Parker.

Empirical evidence also suggests that Dodd–Frank, combined with the domestic regulations, has had dire effects on family health. The infant mortality rate in areas surrounding mines nearly doubled in the years following what Parker describes as a “one- two punch” of legislation.

“What we think happened was that this big economic disruption reduced access to health care, either because services and facilities were less accessible or because families didn’t have the income any longer to get the health care they needed,” says Parker.

The future of the industry is uncertain, as is the long-term viability of Dodd–Frank itself. In 2016, the European Union passed its own form of regulation that promotes responsible sourcing. Untangling the effects of these laws isn’t as easy as simply repealing them.

“There are layers of different policies and regulations in place, so the governance of conflict minerals is now extensive and quite complex,” says Parker.

Though his past work has focused elsewhere, such as in studying land trusts, Parker acknowledges this chapter of his career is likely far from over. Early this year he was interviewed twice on the BBC World News. And in March he was invited to testify at a Washington, D.C. hearing about conflict minerals held by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy. Though that hearing was postponed, it is clear that policy changes are being considered.

“The wheels are in motion now, and the health of vulnerable populations is at stake,” Parker says.