Searching for Solutions: In the field of environmental chemistry, local action can have a global impact.
There are hundreds of undergraduate research projects underway at Ohio Northern University each year. Some of these projects are theoretical in scope, challenging an established concept or idea. Others are actual projects that could result in new technology that changes peoples’ lives … probably just not yours. And then there are those that have a practical application that really hits you where you live.
The current research of ONU students Joanne Berry, a senior biochemistry major from Brunswick, Ohio, and Louis Streacker, a junior chemistry major from Findlay, Ohio, could ultimately affect the lives of all of us in Northwest Ohio, either directly in terms of our quality of life, or indirectly through economic means. Both students are engaged in environmental chemistry research into the health and wellbeing of local watersheds under the guidance of Dr. Chris Spiese, assistant professor of chemistry.
A watershed is an area of land that shares a common drainage point, usually a river, lake or ocean. In this area, that common drainage point is the Blanchard River to the north. From there, the Blanchard River, along with the Ottawa and Auglaize rivers, drains into the Maumee River, which feeds into Lake Erie. There are more than 2,000 watersheds in the continental U.S., and it is their interconnectivity that gives local problems the chance to become national, or even international, ones.
Rivers and streams like this one near Pandora, Ohio, are the focus of undergraduate research at ONU.
The primary pressure currently being placed on western Lake Erie Basin tributary watersheds is phosphorus and nitrogen contamination. These two chemical nutrients are key ingredients in agricultural fertilizer and are commonly found in rural environments where farming occupies a majority of the land. Too much phosphorus and nitrogen runoff can result in the eutrophication of a body of water. Eutrophication is the radical consumption of oxygen in water by an overgrowth of aquatic plants. It leads to decreased water quality and has actually resulted in harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, which have caused economic losses through the region due to forced closure of beaches to swimming and impacts on fisheries.
“This is a huge area that a lot of people are concerned about,” says Spiese. “The eutriphication of the sub watersheds that feed into Lake Erie will result in those same nutrients going into Lake Erie. The Ohio EPA, Ohio Department of Natural Resources and academic laboratories are all interested in this, as are a lot of community groups that do the same thing.”
Spiese and his students are looking into this problem at a local level, but as the ecology shows, their results could have far-reaching impact. Interconnectedness isn’t just for the water system, as currently three research projects are all dealing with watershed ecology.
Spiese’s first research project at ONU looked into developing a better, faster and cheaper way to test for phosphorus in water using rare earth metals. While the initial results with the new technology were favorable, field tests proved disheartening, as two rather common elements, aluminum and magnesium were revealed to “short-circuit” the process.
Dr. Chris Spiese collects a water sample from tile drainage in Hancock County. He is working with students on multiple research projects related to the eutriphication of western Lake Erie Basin tributary watersheds
Still, the research provided favorable results in other areas. The first being a new working relationship with the Blanchard River Watershed Partnership, a community group interested in keeping their local watershed clean and healthy for the citizens of the region. Spiese used samples collected by the BRWP to test his new phosphorus-testing method and provided a chemical breakdown of each sample in return.
“They study the biology of the watershed. They look at the insects and creatures that exist in the samples and can determine if it comes from a good, healthy habitat. Our chemical analysis tells them which nutrients are present to allow a habitat to be healthy or not. It’s the whole picture you want to look at when trying to determine the health of an area.”
Another benefit of that project is that it brought Spiese together with Berry and Streacker. In ONU’s Department of Chemistry, it is customary for the faculty to present their current research projects to the sophomore capstone class so that those students who wish to get involved with research before their senior year can identify a project that fits their interests. Both students approached Spiese after hearing about his work.
Joanne Berry, a senior biochemistry major from Brunswick, Ohio, collects water samples for her undergraduate research.
“I approached Dr. Spiese because I really liked his research on how phosphorus affects the water system. So I’ve been working with him since with phosphorus research, and last year I approached him with a project of my own,” says Berry.
For the pre-med Berry, pure analytical chemistry research was interesting, but she was really looking for a way to gain experience with medicinally related research. She approached Spiese with the idea to look for traces of estrogen in water samples from the watershed. Since estrogen is a human hormone, any traces of estrogen in the watershed would be the result of human contamination, likely from human wastewater from residential septic systems.
Spiese was intrigued by the idea. He reached out to ONU professor of civil engineering Bryan Boulanger, an expert in water treatment who had experience with so-called emerging contaminants as a post-doctoral researcher at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the two bounced ideas off one another.
“It turns out that doing analyses on estrogenic compounds is incredibly difficult. There are so many compounds that interfere,” says Spiese. “We settled on this thought that, maybe instead of looking for estrogenic compounds that are coming through rural septic systems, why don’t we try something that’s a little bit easier to measure, but is indicative of the same sewage effluent that would introduce estrogen, namely, caffeine.”
Caffeine was discovered as a marker for human wastewater contamination relatively recently –only about 10 years ago. Since then it has been found virtually everywhere in the environment. While only 10 percent or less of ingested caffeine is ultimately excreted into wastewater, caffeine is relatively stable in the environment and is, therefore, an excellent indicator for human impacts. It is now one of more than 200 identifiable emerging contaminants scientists are able to detect. According to Spiese, “Every month, there is a new study showing something new coming through.”
Throughout the world, researchers are finding that humankind’s impact on watersheds varies regionally and is heavily influenced by the economy. As rural areas see phosphorus and nitrogen contamination as a result of agriculture, recent research into emerging contaminants shows that urban areas have unique and very specific contamination signatures. For example, watersheds near large hospitals have tested positive for gadolinium, a rare earth element used in MRI contrast agents. Other studies have looked for things like the artificial sweetener Splenda, and there is great interest in prescription medications.
Berry, Spiese and Boulanger received a grant from the USGS for their caffeine research last spring. Since then, they have been using ONU laboratories to test water samples from Riley Creek, a eutrophic Lake Erie tributary within the Blanchard River watershed that has been identified by the EPA as a watershed in need of management. Their goal was to take a simple caffeine-detection study a step further by correlating their findings with Spiese’s previous phosphorus research to determine the extent to which residential on-site wastewater treatment in rural watersheds is a significant source of nitrogen and phosphorus into Riley Creek.
“We were expecting more of a correlation between caffeine and nitrogen, because urea is nitrogen-based, but caffeine is correlating with phosphorus instead, which is very interesting in itself. It spiked our interest to further investigate why that’s happening,” says Berry.
To date, the study has shown that septic systems do not contribute significantly to nitrogen present in the river, while they may play a role in phosphorus loading. It is a potentially significant discovery. Many community groups in the area seek funding from the state of Ohio for septic remediation projects to prevent septic runoff from entering the local watershed. This research may prove that taxpayer dollars could be more effectively spent elsewhere to combat watershed eutrophication.
“The quarter-million dollars that is being secured from the state for septic system remediation isn’t going to do much. It’s money that’s being wasted,” says Spiese. “So what we are seeing here are students that are going out and doing research that will hopefully impact how we as a society deal with these problems.”
Those charged with dealing with these problems will hear from Spiese and company at the Water Management Association of Ohio conference this fall. Spiese also is encouraging his students to present at the annual Posters at the Capitol conference in Columbus this spring. “I’d like to see them be able to meet with our state senators and representatives and say, ‘Hey this is what we found. Now it’s up to you to translate this research into legislative mumbo jumbo.’”
Louis Streacker, a junior chemistry major from Findlay, Ohio, is combining his interest in research methods with his desire to make a difference in his community.
For Streaker, really any research project would do. He just wanted to get into a lab and get time on ONU’s many scientific instruments. As a sophomore, he heard Spiese’s presentation and liked that the research had a substantial analytical chemistry component and was local. As a Findlay, Ohio, native, he liked the thought of doing research that might affect his home.
“I’m doing this for the science and to help develop my laboratory technique,” he says. “But I am also from the area, so being able to look at the watershed and some of the nutrient loading that goes on in the area is a way to help the community understand what’s happening in their environment.”
Streacker earned the Ruth E. Weir Memorial Award for Research to study sterols in riverbed sediment as an indicator of the source of phosphorus in water. Sterols are what is left over after an animal eats and digests cholesterol. Sterols from humans are different from sterols from a pig or a cow, so by examining and measuring sterols, Streacker can determine the origin of a sample and whether human beings or agriculture is responsible for the phosphorus in the water at sites along the Blanchard River. So far, it’s been a rewarding experience that has broadened his understanding of research.
“I’ve already taken the analytical chemistry course here at Northern, so this research has reinforced what I learned and provided me with hands-on experience doing things I hadn’t necessarily learned in class, like going out into the field collecting sediment samples,” he says. “I’ve gotten a lot more time on the instruments and that helps as much as anything. Overall, I’m more comfortable with the equipment and the procedures.”
Even though Berry had worked on other research projects before working with Spiese — including one in genetics at another university — this experience was the one that turned her career plans upside down.
“Before, I was thinking I wanted to go straight to medical school after I graduated, but now I’m thinking that I’d rather enroll in a Ph.D. program after I graduate, and pursue medical school later. I don’t know that I would have considered that without the personal experience of working with my professor and feeling fully invested in the research. The mentorship environment is one of the things I love about ONU.”
Spiese’s research into the area watersheds and the environmental problems they face will continue long after Berry and Streacker graduate from ONU. Sadly, they aren’t problems that are likely to go away soon. Many more researchers will be needed to keep our water safe and clean and the economic and societal repercussions of watershed contamination at bay.
To learn more about environmental chemistry at ONU, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.