Back to Back Hurricanes Inspire Grad’s Groundbreaking Earthworm Research

Denise Sugino Souffront's research on earthworms and agriculture grew out of a desire to help her country, Puerto Rico.

Sarah DeMond/Staff writer


Two years ago, Daphne Sugino Souffront’s home and community in Dorado, Puerto Rico were destroyed by back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria. 

Her family home was ripped apart, missing a wall and parts of the roof. The agricultural infrastructure of Puerto Rico was obliterated, making it exceedingly difficult to access food, and Sugino Souffront often had to stand in long lines just to get bread and rice.

One of the only things that kept Sugino Souffront’s head up during this time, was the anticipation of her acceptance letter from FIU. On days that her family had enough gas to spare, Sugino Souffront Souffront would travel to the capitol building or a store in order to get signal to check her email. 

Normally, this drive would take less than twenty minutes, however, it would often take more than an hour to travel after the storms because of the destruction. 

One day, her father told her there would not be enough gas to find a place to check her email. All of a sudden, phone signal returned in her house for the first time in weeks. On this uncanny day, she checked her email and saw what she wanted for so long: her acceptance to FIU. 

Two years later, on Saturday, December 15th, Sugino Souffront walked across the commencement stage as an FIU Worlds Ahead Graduate, with a Masters of Science in Environmental Studies. 

Reflecting on the moment she received the news about being a Worlds Ahead Graduate, Sugino Souffront told PantherNOW,  “It was a very emotional moment. I’ve worked very hard in the past, and this is something so important to me, to have my research showcased is very exciting.”

Sugino Souffront’s groundbreaking research focuses on earthworms. The devastating storms that she experienced turned out to be an unlikely source of her inspiration for her work.

“I was trying to think about something that could be cheap, easy, accessible for everyone, especially given the situation I was in myself where there was not a lot of food on the island because the agricultural infrastructure had collapsed,” Sugino Souffront said.

Vermicompost, her project focus, is a combination of decomposing food waste, paper and bedding materials and various species of worms whose poop creates rich nutrients for the soil. However, after receiving the USDA Hispanic Serving BASE Grant, Sugino Souffront was able to conduct research about vermicompost that is the first of its kind. 

She’s been examining how earthworms filter out certain bacteria and microorganisms. After they are filtered out, she discovered these work in conjunction with the earthworms to not only make a soil full of growth hormones, but also changes the plant chemistry to repel pests. 

After returning home from her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science, she began to see the issues facing Puerto Rico and wanted to make a change to agricultural practices all over the world. 

“After what I’ve been through it really reaffirmed that passion and also my commitment towards my community and doing something that can be used to make a difference everywhere,” she said.

FIU researchers in environmental science and biology Krishnaswamy Jayachandran, Amir Khoddamzadeh and Diego Salazar-Amoretti contributed to Sugino Souffront’s work.

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