What kind of research opportunities are open to George Mason undergraduates? Hear from Keith, a student encouraged to apply for a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) by Dr. Cindy Smith. Hear him talk about what it was like to research fisheries with the Gulf of Maine Institute (https://www.gmri.org).
I am very excited to share what our lab has been working on for the 2019 Summer Impact Research Project: Microbial Communities as Indicators of Ecological Health. Dhanush Banka (a student from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology) and I have been working in Dr. Salerno’s lab at the Potomac Science Center, George Mason’s research center on the Occoquan River. Our environmental samples have been collected by Dr. van Aken’s lab, where fellow OSCAR student Nick Mills is working on the sediment samples. My focus is on the water samples taken from Cameron Run and Hunting Creek in Alexandria, VA as part of the environmental monitoring project that GMU does in association with Alexandria Renew Enterprises, the local wastewater processor for that area.
This is the first year that water samples are being surveyed to determine the microbial population. We have learned how to perform DNA extractions from the samples, how to quantify our results using two different methods, and also how to amplify the DNA in preparation for submitting the samples for DNA sequencing. We’ve been waiting patiently for the sequencing data, which will allow us to identify not only the types of bacteria present, but also the relative abundances to be able to get an idea of the composition of the microbial community. We’re correlating those results with rainfall, water flow, river height, and temperature data to build a profile and possibly model how changes in the environment will affect the microbial community. Since Cameron Run parallels the Capital Beltway and Hunting Creek adjoins Alexandria, the water samples are from an urban environment, and we expect the composition of the microbial community to reflect that.
As with most things regarding our environment, we don’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been. Without some initial information, surveys, or records, we don’t know what affect our changing climate or other anthropogenic activities are making in our own environment. The unseen microbial community far outnumbers all of the life that we can see, and because it grows so much more quickly than other visible organisms the microbial community is the ‘pulse’ of the environment. Our ability to identify microbial families through the use of environmental DNA is a breakthrough, a new tool that we’re only beginning to learn how to use. We now have the genetic tools available to discover far more detail about the world around us than we have ever had in our history. As an older, non-traditional student, I’m excited to be part of this research, even as an undergraduate student. These new tools, this new technology, and these new techniques are what inspired me to pursue a degree in biology. That’s what I wanted to learn and that’s why I’m at George Mason University where I am part of a team using these tools to conduct real field research in my own community.
Written by: Alex Marchesani
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.
Written by: Sabrina Barkat
My name is Sabrina. I am a current student in OSCAR program for summer 2018. My work is about investigation and fate of emerging contaminants in Gunston Cove of Potomac river in Alexandria.
We extract micropollutants from water, sediment and fish samples and use liquid chromatography-mass spectrum (LC-MS/MS) method to analyze the extracts. We solid phase extract the micropollutants from water samples and use QuEChERS to extract them from sediments and fish and then run the extracts in the LC-Ms/MS instrument and we analyze the results.
After that, we apply the KABAM model to predict the bioaccumulation of chemicals in organisms’ tissues. More interestingly, the work is collaborative, and this gives me a good opportunity to interact with people with different background and be involved in group work.
This research is the best experience in my academic pathway because I feel that I absorb lot of information related to my field and I am surrounded by a huge, friendly and experienced team working with me in the lab. Moreover, this research involves lot of data analysis and use a lot of literature resources where I learn more about my research and related topics and I develop skills in data analysis and time management. I learn from every single step I process, and I strengthen my experience in the lab work, I interact with people with high experience and I learn to work under pressure of time which I can apply in my daily life as well. I, also, should admit that this research is a guide for me to pursuit my graduate program in the same field of study.
Hi! I’m Emily, I’m a rising junior at Mason, and I’m lucky to be an OSCAR student this summer! The team I work with is studying the Potomac River, and we work at the Potomac Science Center (a new Mason campus in Woodbridge, VA).
In addition to doing our research, we have been able to do some local outreach events, teaching kids about the water and the invertebrates in it!
The first outreach event was with Fort Belvoir Middle School, when they have their Water Quality Field Day. They come to the Fairfax Water treatment plant, and
there are tables set up throughout the whole plant to teach them new things! It was a super fun day, and the kids seemed super interested. Our table was about talking to kids about the water and why river mussels are so important to the Potomac river & also explaining the invasive species (Corbicula clams and mystery snails!)
The second outreach event was at Occoquan Regional park for their grand opening! This day was all about turbidity (how much dirt is in the water, and how clear it is) and also what kind of zooplankton are in the water. There was a microscope with Daphnia manga (a type of zooplankton commonly found in the Potomac River), and jars with different turbidity levels to show the difference.
I love outreach events, they make my job so much fun, and to teach kids about what I do is awesome!
Featured Image: Dr. Dann Sklarew‘s Sustainability in Action Course did a clean up of the Occoquan river in April 2017. They braved the wind to collect 19 bags of trash! The most commonly found items were bottles (glass and plastic), Styrofoam, and fishing line.
Being part of a river community has tremendous perks. Our students and faculty have worked with John Houser and the Occoquan River Community for years, conducting research sharing family-friendly water quality activities at the Occoquan River Festival, as well as updating the community on research and programming on annual Rivershore cruises and participating in river clean-ups. This community has provided Mason students with diverse experiences as well as valuable networking connections.
When the Occoquan Regional Park Manager, John Houser, and the Occoquan Water Trail League (OWL) needed help to complete the installation of mile marker signs along the 40mile stretch of river shore, they immediately looked towards hiring George Mason students. The OWL is a volunteer affiliate of the Occoquan Water Trail and NOVA Parks, composed of recreational paddlers and others committed to low-impact use, conservation and resource stewardship of our shared waterways. Weather and tides permitting, river marker sign installation should be completed by the end of June.
We’re proud to be a part of the newly organized Occoquan River Communities Alliance, said PEREC’s Dr. Cynthia Smith, where the business, university, parks, town, arts and communities routinely come together supporting each other.
Have you been following last summer’s OSCAR research on micropollutants in the Potomac? Are you an undergrad who would you love a PAID summer research experience like that? There are TEN positions open!
Apply now at https://gmu-csm.symplicity.com/
Led by principal investigators Amy Fowler and Kim de Mutsert, the Summer Team Project looked at the effects of micropollutants on the Potomac River watershed. Projects were funded by the Students as Scholars at Mason as well as the Patriot Green Fund, and the videos were produced by graduate student, Chelsea Gray, thanks to the Virginia Sea Grant.
Written by: Jessie Melton
River herring, Alosa pseudoharengus and Alosa aestivalis, are an anadromous fish species that migrate from marine waters through estuaries to freshwater nurseries in order to spawn and lay eggs. River herring have historically been a valuable commercial species in fisheries, but the stocks collapsed throughout their native region along the Atlantic Coast since the 1990s. The Potomac Environmental Research and Educational Center (PEREC) has conducted an ongoing study of Gunston Cove for the past three and a half decades, and has incorporated the monitoring of river herring population to aid in determining whether or not the moratorium is beneficial to the decline in river herring abundance.
OSCAR student Heather Nortz talks about her summer 2017 research. Led by principal investigators Amy Fowler and Kim de Mutsert, the Summer Team Project looked at the effects of micropollutants on the Potomac River watershed. Projects were funded by the Students as Scholars at Mason as well as the Patriot Green Fund, and the videos were produced by graduate student, Chelsea Gray, thanks to the Virginia Sea Grant.