Speakers: Joel Burken, PhD

Joel Burken, PhD

Distinguished Curators’ Professor and Chair
John A. and Susan Mathes Chair of Environmental Engineering
Civil, Architectural, & Environmental Engineering
Missouri University of Science and Technology


Dr. Burken received his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1996, where he conducted some of the initial research on phytoremediation. He has been at Missouri University of Science and Technology (formerly University of Missouri – Rolla) since 1997. He currently serves as Chair, Mathes Endowed Professor, and Curators’ Distinguished Professor of the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department, Dr. Burken has also held temporary positions at: EAWAG in Zurich Switzerland (research intern), at the National Environment Research Institute (NERI) in Denmark (visiting researcher and OECD Fellow) and at the University of Canterbury in the Department of Civil and Natural Resources Engineering, New Zealand as an Erskine Fellow.

Talking to the Trees – Phytoforensics & Human Pollutant Exposure

Plants interact intimately with their environment, extracting all that is needed to represent 99% of the world’s terrestrial biomass. Vascular plants concurrently collect and store chemicals and elements from the water, air, and soil in the surrounding environment. Chemical uptake is active, not passive, driven by evapotranspiration. The methods discussed herein take advantage of this natural energy transfer which brings contaminants from the subsurface to above ground where they can be sampled easily, rapidly, inexpensively and with little impact. Fugitive contaminants are difficult to detect in groundwater and the potential risk assessment and remediation efficacy relies on accurate delineation of the contaminated areas. Using novel techniques in phytoforensics, we can gather this data on contaminants in the subsurface environment to help in contaminated-site investigations and delineations that are too often costly and inaccurate, thereby aiding in human health protection.

The understanding of plant – contaminant interactions also inform us of transmembrane migration, and through new AI gained insights, we now know plant uptake through root membranes mimics mammalian potential uptake of pollutants.