Class of 2020: Sara Perl Egendorf Will Continue to Promote Food Justice as a Cornell University Postdoc

May 22, 2020

Through research and community action, she strives to support safe, sustainable urban farming in New York City.

Sara Perl Egendorf (Photo courtesy of Egendorf)
Sara Perl Egendorf (Photo courtesy of Egendorf)

Urban farming has taken on increased importance as we work to create sustainable cities, guarantee food access, and improve community health. But how do we ensure that the soil in cities, which can be contaminated with lead and other poisons, is safe for growing food? And how do city-dwellers, particularly in New York, get access to clean soil? 

Sara Perl Egendorf (Ph.D. ’20, Earth and Environmental Sciences) has been searching for answers to these and related questions about the potential for urban soil to promote environmental justice and sustainability. And, starting in August, she will continue her quest as a postdoctoral researcher with Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

Studying city soils, Egendorf says, “opened my eyes to incredible worlds of research and fieldwork supporting social justice and food justice.” She adds, “Soils are at intersection between the earth’s living and non-living systems.”

Egendorf, who grew up in New York City, will stay in her hometown and collaborate with Cornell researchers on issues related to soil contamination and ways to mitigate it. She will also study soil microbiology, analyzing the DNA of organisms in the soils used for urban agriculture. 

“This is an exciting and burgeoning area of research, a lot of unknowns,” she says. “There are a lot of impacts of this microbial research. And this also connects to greater environmental nutrient cycling and human health.”

In addition to lab work, Egendorf will coordinate sampling and field trials in the city. “We're going to focus on larger scale urban farms,” she says, noting that “a goal is to also make this data accessible not only to urban famers, but also to composters, community gardeners, and a range of city agencies and organizations.”

Egendorf’s doctoral work built on her master’s thesis, a pilot study she conducted for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation. She researched ways to reduce the levels of toxic chemicals in city soil by mixing sediments excavated from building sites with compost, creating new soil. Tested in community gardens, it produced a viable growing medium. 

Now, despite the halt in the city’s composting program because of budget cuts resulting from the coronavirus shutdown, Egendorf is enthusiastic about expanding her research. She continues to collaborate with the mayor’s office and has been working with young people and gardeners in two NYC Housing Authority communities in Queens — Ravenswood and Pomonok Houses — on participatory research analyzing soil mixtures. She says connections to urban growers, government programs, and other scientists are essential to moving her research forward. 

The Graduate Center, she says, allowed her to cultivate her research. “I just think there are so many amazing people and connections within CUNY itself and then between CUNY and other city organizations and offices. I can't imagine any other institution that has the ability to support interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, multiscale projects. I found amazing support in doing that from faculty and students. I just encourage people to dream big, to imagine what's possible and go for it.”

Like the rest of CUNY’s 2020 graduates, Egendorf will have to wait until 2021 for a live commencement ceremony. But, she says, “I will take the knowledge, skills, and connections I developed over this time with me for the rest of my life. I don't need a ceremony to mark this.”