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University of Minnesota
January 18, 2012
Photo by David Mendolia.
Student's skills in biochemistry and Chinese prepared him for unexpected research
By Bill Magdalene
Chris Decker graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota this spring, with a degree in biochemistry and a minor in Chinese. His mix of interests, experiences, and skills prepared him for an unexpected research project.
Recently, he talked about how his research idea came about and why he pursued it.
Q&A with Chris Decker
You did research on heavy metal in green tea. Why?
I went abroad to study Chinese in Tianjin, China, a city near Beijing. I studied there for a year (2008-09) and experienced firsthand the terrible pollution problem that many cities in China face. To illustrate, the district where I attended school had a tower … about half a mile from campus. On most days you could not see it because the smog was so bad. I first realized this might be affecting my health because after I would play soccer or go running, my lungs would burn from breathing this air.
While in China I also became an avid tea drinker. When I came back from China it took a while for my health to recover. As a part of my recovery, I had blood tests done and lead levels were higher than normal. … It hit me that in China the air I breathed, food I ate, and water I drank may have been contaminated. This included tea, which as my doctor mentioned can accumulate lead. Being back in the US, the only food or drink that I drank regularly from China was green tea.
When did you decide on the project?
When I first came back from China I got [approval to do] research on prostate cancer. Unfortunately, the head of the lab moved to a different school so I couldn't continue my research. As a result, I was inspired to create this project. My Biochemistry of Vitamins professor did his PhD on trace element analysis and was able to advise me. There was a little serendipity, but I am glad it ended up the way it did.
Why is this research important?
The public generally considers tea a healthy product. However, if the tea is contaminated it has the potential to diminish or even cause harm to a regular drinker. My research brings light to this subject as well as offers several solutions to a possible problem. In a more general sense: because of the global economy with food products coming from around the world, I think this study stresses the importance of monitoring the food that comes from outside the US.
What do you love most about what you do?
I really enjoy that I am investigating something that is so applicable and directly affects so many people including myself. I tested many of the teas I drink so now I know which ones are safe. Also, this project combined my interests for science and Chinese. Many of the better studies on this subject have been done in China and some articles are only available in Chinese. It was fun trying to read these articles.
What's your big goal?
I hope that I can find a job where I am able to truly help people and make a difference in their lives as well as provide meaning in my own. It would also be nice to find something like this tea project that can combine my interests in science and Chinese.
What was key to your student experience?
Being actively involved extracurricular activities can help make college meaningful. It doesn't necessarily mean being involved in 30 things but pursuing a few that you are passionate about. For me it was getting involved in the club soccer team, intramural soccer team with my Chinese friends, Mindfulness for Students group, and research.
In terms of the actual school, lectures by their very nature are boring unless you become active in the process. If you don't like speaking up in class, go after class and talk to professors. Class is so much more interesting when you make a connection with the professors and your classmates.
Why the University of Minnesota?
Because the U is such a big institution there are so many options and opportunities that I think you can't get at smaller schools. In addition, the honors program … was such a great choice for me. It is very competitive with a number of advanced classes but tuition was more reasonable than some other "big name" schools. The College of Biolgoical Sciences also "shrunk" the University for me so it didn't seem too big.
Advice for fellow searchers?
Be patient ... you have to be in the scientific process. Something always takes longer than you think, or something comes up that you didn't originally account for. It also helps to be passionate and invested about what you are researching. Finally, it helps to separate yourself from the result. Science is messy in the sense that results are not always conclusive or are completely different from expectations. This is just an opportunity to ask new questions and investigate new things.