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Moving Agriculture Upward for Urban Residents

Larvae squirm into an urban resident’s bare foot. Soon, a rash appears, followed by a loss of appetite, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and a fever. One in seven individuals from the global community encounter these undesirable guests. The larvae-sourced disease (also called hookworm or roundworm) plagues over 1.5 billion individuals across the planet—and those living in urban-packed environments are the most at-risk.

Maquelle Drummond (‘23), having had experience with medicinal plants in the past, knew she could devise a solution. With a major in environmental science and sustainability, Drummond focuses on advancing international agriculture development. “I’m always looking at ways to enhance food security, as well as just generally enhance or improve development overseas,” she says.

To pursue her interest in agricultural advancement, Drummond applied for and received a CURA (College Undergraduate Research Award). These grants offer up to $3000 for mentored research opportunities.

Drummond saw a way to address the troublesome larvae and advance agriculture at the same time: the vertical indoor farm, or the hydroponically-grown plant. She worked tirelessly with plant and wildlife sciences professor Matthew Arrington, designing a system that enables those in developing countries the ability to grow gardens in their own homes. And these aren’t just any gardens—these are places where individuals can grow their own medicine.

A hydroponic garden

Hydroponic gardens are set up in small plant sites that stack upward. Each herb takes one pocket, a design that gives space for almost as many plants as a horizontally-spaced garden. “I believe that [hydroponics] is the future of farming; it’s space efficient, water efficient, and just resource efficient in every way,” Drummond says.

Urban and developing areas have a much higher risk of spreading diseases and parasites like hookworm, roundworm, or leishmaniasis. However, with the hydroponic system, Drummond says that residents “would be totally self-sufficient and autonomous in delivering their own medicine.”

The best part? While pharmaceutical medicine can cost millions, the medicinal plants come at little-to-no cost.

“If you could design a system that was highly resource efficient, anyone in the world could grow medicinal herbs, specifically in areas of high urbanization,” she says. “Then, you would be able to offer people an easily accessible, medicinal alternative to counteract the problems of intestinal parasites.”

To test the efficacy of hydroponically-grown herbs, Drummond and Arrington conducted an experiment. They grew epazote (a medicinal herb used to treat hookworm) in a controlled outdoor environment as well as a greenhouse, comparing the growth of the controlled environment plants to the hydroponic herbs.

A medicinal herb used to treat hookworm

While the hydroponic epazote did not grow as quickly or as high as the greenhouse-controlled plants, they were much more sustainable in dry conditions. “One of the cool things about this herb is that it's drought tolerant, and thus, it is able to survive in some really harsh climates where it doesn’t have any water,” Drummond says.

In August, Drummond and a team of researchers will travel to Ghana where they will implement a hydroponics system of their own. Located beneath the Sahara Desert, Ghana fits all the categories for disasters with hookworm: there are hot and dry climates, densely packed urban areas, and plenty of bare feet that walk in unclean streets. The conditions are severe and residents are suffering—but Drummond has a way to help with her hydroponically-grown herbs.

Drummond is ecstatic to apply her agricultural research abroad. “International agriculture development has always been my dream,” she says.

Already, Drummond has started working with a Ghanian professor to help administer the necessary herbs to his students with hookworm. They plan on cultivating the herbs in both the hydroponic and regular gardens, where they will continue trials to see how epazote fares in both environments. Then they will take the epazote and evaluate how the infected students respond. “[Once the herb] is accessible to the students, they can determine its efficacy in ridding the body of all these different parasites,” Drummond says.

In addition to visiting Ghana, Drummond is planning to go to India in the fall, where she will work in the densely-packed cities to help the residents grow their own gardens. Wherever Drummond travels, she will continue to help global communities bring their plants and their populations to greater heights.