Drop by drop: processing events at home and soil samples

The world feels a little bit flipped upside-down. Another month has passed, but I no longer feel sure or assured of anything happening back in the USA.

As I was titrating samples to measure organic matter content in the soils lab at the agricultural university these past few weeks, I wondered if I was proud to tell people I was from the USA. I wondered if being in El Salvador prevents me from being the most involved I can be to protect my friends and family that might see some changes with the coming administration. Or does it limit me in standing up for the social and environmental injustices at Standing Rock? And then a few donations and some calls to congresspeople later, it still feels like a drop in the ocean when reading article after article about atrocities at DAPL or a climate-change denier as a proposed appointee. So right now, I don’t know if I’m proud, but I will continue to do anything and everything from a few countries south of the border.

But I haven’t been sulking the days away– for the past month I have been working in the lab in the National School of Agriculture to learn their methods of quantifying nutrients like calcium and potassium, as well as how much organic matter is in soils. The team that works in the lab has degrees in pharmacology or agricultural sciences. They process at least 40 samples a day, which, when you work with limited automated equipment, is impressive. Still, the lack of experience is not the problem in this lab, it’s the negligence to protocol and to question processes they don’t understand.

My first day in the lab, I saw someone heat up her lunch in the microwave next to the atomic adsorption spectrophometer (photo above), where lab techs measure sodium, potassium, and phosphorous. The woman than took her lunch into the lab, and ate her noodles at a lab bench. The AA machine, by the way, was also lit with a Bunsen burner flint, by hand, which is a testy business in itself. However, the lack of consistency in concentrations quantified by the machine among replicate samples was also worrisome. The samples were pipetted into 5mL segments via mouth-pipetting— a technique highly discouraged (both in labs I have worked in and other labs in El Salvador) because of the risk of inhaling chemicals or contaminating the sample, made necessary by the lack of a simple pipette bulb. While taking notes on methodology in lab, someone brought me a coconut, yes, a whole coconut, to drink in lab (photo above right). While I quickly ran out of the lab with my coconut (admittedly, delicious), my coconut-deliverer was standing in the middle of the lab, peeling and eating an orange. In the afternoon, a few women came by with panecitos y pan dulces in case anyone needed a treat for a coffee break. Another lab tech brushed her teeth in a lab sink. These observations continued throughout the week. The reaction to process organic matter is normally conducted in a fume hood, because there are toxic fumes, and yet for convenience I saw a lab tech begin to start the reactions out in the open before I pleaded with him to move the bulky burette stand inside the hood.

Also I found Asbestos! Just to put the cherry on top of illustrating the observations in lab.

Three months have flown by. I’m off to design some experiments involving liming and nutrient levels with coffee people at CENTA (national agricultural center and location of soils lab) soon. I’ve realized that the best way to reach people here is to physically show up and sit down to a meeting. Bit by bit, working through to figure out how to get things done and to put plans into action. Hopefully, drops make a splash.