Written by: Chelsea Gray
Each year, researchers and graduate students from PEREC gather data on Gunston Cove, located just downriver from the Norman M. Cole Jr. Pollution Control Plant. This study has been used to determine the health of the Potomac River for over three decades.
How is a river’s health determined?
She found that some environmental science and biology majors were having difficulty finding jobs without a graduate degree. Looking for answers, she surveyed 10 employers and found that what they wanted most was were employees who had worked on “real” research projects and had “real” field experience. So she reworked the course to include an energy audit of a campus building, which is conducted in partnership with Mason’s Offices of Sustainability and Facilities….
“One of the best parts about my job is the interaction with the students during plant tours—and getting new ideas from them that we can possibly use to save energy,” says Jeffrey Counts, superintendent of the heating and cooling plant in Facilities Management.
Read the rest here.
Written by: Tabitha King
What if I told you fish could potentially be ingesting caffeine, pain medicine, and other pharmaceuticals on a daily basis? You may be wondering how this is possible since fish do not regularly visit the pharmacy to pick up their prescriptions. However, there is a growing concern amongst scientists and other stakeholders that the very medications we are taking (even common allergy relievers) are not being removed during wastewater treatment. Current regulations placed on wastewater treatment plants do not require the removal of such substances. To make matters worse, if a treatment plant was to take on the task of removing pharmaceuticals from their customers’ sewage, there are new compounds made on a daily basis. Each chemical would require a unique form of effective removal to ensure at least a majority is removed before treated water is discharged into local waterways. It is currently not known at what amounts of these medications are making their way into our local waterways and accumulating in aquatic organisms and sediment. (more…)
Written By: Heather Nortz
How many prescription or over the counter drugs are currently in your medicine cabinet? Did you know that your body doesn’t absorb 100% of the drugs you take? What do you do with your expired or unused drugs? Do you think wastewater treatment or drinking water plants remove pharmaceuticals from water before they release it into the environment or to your well or water tower? (more…)
By: Lisa McAnulty
I once heard someone say that if you brought a glass down to the Potomac River and took a long swig of its water, you would have swallowed a small dose of antidepressants. While drinking Potomac River water is highly discouraged, there may be a hint of truth to this statement. Thousands of pharmaceuticals and personal care products are on the market, and many inevitably make their way into rivers and streams through wastewater discharge or other sources. While we might not necessarily be chugging river water on a daily basis, many organisms call the Potomac River home and can’t escape the barrage of these so-called emerging contaminants. However, “emerging contaminants” is a misleading term for pharmaceuticals and personal care products, which have been in our waters for many years. It’s only recently that scientists developed methods sensitive enough to precisely measure trace quantities of these pollutants. (more…)
By: Sammie Alexander
As a member of the ecology team for the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center’s (PEREC) summer OSCAR team project, my research goal is to investigate the predator-prey dynamics between fish and macroinvertebrates in two freshwater tidal Potomac River tributaries, Gunston Cove and Hunting Creek. This means, I examine the stomach content of 15 fish species known to inhabit both embayments in order to construct a food web for each location.
Written By: Michael Rollins; Photo Credit: Sammie Alexander
You would never think that drinking 16 liters of soda would be key to being an ecologist. I didn’t either. As a George Mason University senior, finishing my degree in environmental science with a concentration in marine, estuarial, and freshwater ecology, I am participating in an OSCAR undergraduate summer research project.
PEREC Faculty and George Mason Students spent a wonderful Saturday at the Occoquan River Fest. The festival was a great place for NOVA residents to learn about the history and environment of the Occoquan River.
PEREC’s booth was dedicated to the health and ecosystem of local Virginia streams. Students and Faculty provided some great hands on activities, by fishing out live organisms for visitors to see up close. Crayfish, amphipods, and cranefly larvae were caught from the river that day and temporarily held in a glass aquarium. Children were able to get up close and personal, using magnifying glasses to get a detailed look at the organisms from their backyard.
“It’s great seeing the excitement in young kids when they examine small critters like crayfish and cranefly larvae up close,” says Kim De Mutsert.
George Mason graduate and undergraduate students were able to practice their science communication skills, with children and adults alike. The students explained that the number and types of organisms found in a river help scientists determine how “healthy” (i.e. unpolluted) the waterway is.
But it wasn’t just GMU students doing to the teaching.
“It was so interesting to see how much the parents would learn from their kids,” Grad student, Jessica Melton says. “The kids would tell their parents that what we caught was only 100 meters away. They’d explain to them what a cranefly was (Parents often thought it was a nuisance or large mosquito) as it’s very common in the area. The parents realized that it’s actually a beneficial species to keep around.”
That kind of experience is what made the day a success.
An annual event, PEREC looks forward to next year’s Occcoquan River River Fest!
Update: Applications are closed, and applicants are currently being considered. The project has received a further $12,000 from Patriot Green Fund.
PEREC faculty Amy Fowler and Kim de Mutsert are currently looking for dedicated undergraduates to participate in a one of a kind research experience. The paid, 10-week summer program will give students the unique experience of collaborating with experienced faculty in research and scientific communication.
What kind of research will students be doing?
Students will assess biological and chemical aspects of two Potomac locations, Hunting Creek and Gunston Cove. PEREC faculty has sampled both of these regions, but the OSCAR research study will be the first of its kind.
While each student will focus on one specific area of research, together each project will look at the effects of micropollutants, such as mercury, in the food web. Students will collect data on the population of invertebrates, fishes, and zooplankton in the river. This is considered a good indicator of overall ecosystem health, as “sensitive” organisms are less likely to be found when there are pollutants present. A high diversity of organisms is also indicative of a healthy ecosystem.
Students will also test the river bottom to see if there are any micropollutants present, and if so, how deep in the sediment? When compared to the biological data, students will be able to determine if there is a correlation between less pollution and more organism diversity.
Not only will students get to help design and implement a research project, they will also get to participate in community outreach. Students will get to hone their oral communication skills through two oral presentations, and will also get experience writing a scientific report.
Why is this research important?
Studies have demonstrated that micropollutants (substances which are toxic in small doses) can build up in the environment, whether that be the sediment, or through the food chain. Bioaccumulation is when animals higher up in the food change have higher amounts of micropollutants, due to the fact that they consume many small organisms (such as zooplankton) that have consumed pollutants.
While few people swim in the Potomac River or eat the fish from there, the Potomac is a Chesapeake Bay watershed. There is a strong change that micropollutants found in the Potomac can make their way to the Bay, where many people spend their summers fishing and swimming.
Not only will students demonstrate if micropollutants are present, the two different areas might help identify how much they are related to anthropogenic (human) inputs. A food web study, a watershed analysis, and a science communication component will complement the ecotoxicology research to better understand the source and fate of micropollutants in the Potomac River watershed.
How is it funded?
Dr. Fowler and Dr. De Mutsert have both successfully teamed up to earn two grants to fund student research.
Dr. Fowler is especially excited for the summer, because she is a new faculty member, and can’t wait to meet new undergrads, who she hopes to mentor “as early as possible” in their academic career.
“Mentoring makes me a better teacher and a better scientist… I really enjoy helping students become better researcher, even if that’s not what they end up doing, you can always look at the world through the lens of a scientist, you can always question the world.”
Dr. De Mutsert is excited that the Potomac Science Center will immediately be used to its full potential:
“A summer research experience in aquatic science ideally takes place in an off-campus research facility right on the water. I am really excited we are able to offer that. We have an interdisciplinary team of scientists including geologists, chemists, ecologists, and science communication experts together in the same building that are involved in this project, and are mentoring the students. We can be on the water when we want to, and plan to be on a boat with the students at least once a week.”
Both agree that this summer experience will prepare students for a future as a scientist, as it will strengthen their communication skills in a way class labs are not able to. Scientists are always writing proposals, grants, and preparing lectures. This summer research experience will give them the skills and confidence to do these effectively.
What is the future of this program?
This pilot program will hopefully open the door for further research experience for undergraduates. While the 2017 summer program is currently only open to George Mason students, PEREC hopes to open up it up to undergraduates nation wide.
If this initial program is successful, it may open the door for funding from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/). This will allow PEREC to accept undergraduates from all over the country for their research program. As the Potomac Science Center is the only center located on a Freshwater Tidal river, it would be a unique, and invaluable opportunity for any young scientist.
Interested students can apply here.