Alex Marchesani: OSCAR 2018 Summer Experience

Written by: Alex Marchesani

Students working with Professor Greg Foster to analyze results of contaminant levels in fish

I’ve always been fascinated with science from a very young age. Tearing through books on biology and trying to memorize as many facts as I could about various other natural phenomenon. As I progressed through my high school career, I found myself enamored with microbiology specifically. Discovering and learning all the various eccentricities and distinctive features of the different classes and species. I now find myself entering my second year here at Mason. I have taken several chemistry and biology courses thus far. Throughout my first two semesters, I began to feel something I had never felt before in regards to science. I felt bored. Not because classes were too easy (CERTAINLY not that). But somehow, the luster was fading. The endless facts and equations were becoming taxing, rather than energizing like years past. I began to fear: “Have I chosen wrong?” “I’ve never had passion for another subject, can I really change?” “What if science isn’t for me?”

I had two basic options for what to do over the summer, continue working at my local country club and wake up at 5:30AM every day to work the grounds of the golf course, or find an internship. Because you are reading this now, I think you can realize which choice I went with and why. As for my internship options, I went with science, the thing I was afraid I was losing passion for. I applied to several opportunities and sent my various cover letters and other requirements. As time passed, I began to think about abandoning everything and saving as much money as possible for the summer and work at the golf course. One day, I received an email inviting me down to a place I had never been before, the PEREC facility. The email stated that my potential mentors were impressed with my credentials and had invited me for an interview. Although I was still unsure what I wanted, I figured it would be good to explore all my options.

Upon getting to PEREC, I found myself taken aback and surprised. I had never visited a research center before, certainly not one as new and fresh and this. My curiosity piqued, I sat and waited for my interview and tour to begin. The tour consisted of informing me about the things we would be doing. Mainly, gathering data from sediment, water, and fish samples and processing them for analysis with a mass spectrometer. A mass spectrometer is an instrument which someone my age rarely gets the chance to work with. Afterwards, I sensed a slight shift in things. I have just recently come to realize what exactly it was. It was a fire inside me. Burning and raring to be a part of something I had never been before. The hunger to consume knowledge and the craving to understand how to make discoveries of my own had been reignited. I quickly accepted the offer to work at PEREC for the summer.

Since then, I have been able to peak behind the curtain so to speak. To see all the goings-on that culminates in publications and conventions and posters. What I observed was not quite what I had expected. The people here are not cold and calculating scientists, though they can be if the need arises, they are warm, jovial, and always willing to assist you. I am, to my knowledge, the youngest person working in my chemistry lab (I’m 19). Thus, I was quite anxious about working here with the least amount of previous experience, and the fact that I’m not a chemistry major like my colleagues (which I get teased for constantly). Despite a few awkward moments and lots of uncertainty in the beginning weeks, I have since developed friendships with my peers that I normally never would in this situation. I am a very introverted and reserved person, it takes a lot for me to engage others in conversation. However, because so much of the lab work was over my head, at least at first, it forced me to ask people for help, something I’m not very good at. In doing so, I started to feel a sense of “belongingness” that I have never felt towards a work environment before. I feel like part of a team of genuine friends here in the PEREC chemistry lab. The kinds of friend who will help each other with preparing samples of fish (which smelled awful) with no complaint, and then turn around and invite you to trivia night or to a barbecue for the weekend.

Not only do I feel comfortable at PEREC, I also am extremely proud of the work we do and the things we hope to accomplish. I suppose after about two pages, I should probably inform you all what it is we actually do here. My group, as part of a program run through the OSCAR office, is focusing on processing and analyzing fish samples for the purpose of validating the mathematical model we are using to construct a food web of the Potomac River. The other two parts of our project deal with water and sediment samples. The data from these samples will be input into our mathematical model (called Kabam believe it or not) and will deliver us with estimations about what levels of chemicals may be present in many organisms. The kinds of chemicals we are interested in are called micropollutants. Specifically, we are looking into pharmaceuticals and personal-care products (PPCP’s). Many of these compounds have been found in concentrations of just a few parts-per-million. While that may not sound like much, PPCP’s include things like estrogenic compounds and antibiotics. These sorts of chemicals can have major effects on ecosystems even in such small amounts. While the exact effects of many PPCP’s, as well as the sources where they originate, are not fully understood, our work here at PEREC is helping make steps towards forming more comprehensive knowledge about the Potomac and aquatic ecosystems overall.