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The Plastics We Don’t Talk About

Written by Monica Zaky

This is an example of the variety of microplastics that can be collected from bodies of water. Notice the diversity in shape, color, and size.

What if I told you that your facial scrub may be adding to the abundance of plastics in our rivers, lakes, and oceans? Those microbeads that exfoliate your face are often made of plastic. Plastics are everywhere. They are used for packaging, beauty supplies, agriculture, furniture, and even our cars. Sadly, a lot of plastics end up in water of some sorts; in creeks, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, plastics are there, and they are becoming unavoidable. Large plastics break down into tiny pieces called microplastics, or plastics that are less than 5mm in length. Microplastics may come from anything such as clothing to beauty products such as a facial scrub. How many of these plastics are in our water systems, and how might they be interacting with other pollutants in the water?

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Blog Education OSCAR

First Generation Student Turned Researcher

As a kid, Tom Hutchinson never thought he’d get to be a scientist. Hear him talk about the thrill of DNA extraction and research, all conducted while he is an undergraduate, through the Office of Student Scholarship. Tom was the very first student researcher in Dr. Jen Salerno’s lab. He continued working with her, through the Undergraduate Research Scholar Program, with Dr. Salerno as his mentor.

With the support of George Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship the PEREC team is able to provide students with unique and life-changing research experiences.

Want to know more about Tom’s research? Here’s his video from the 2020 GMU Research Symposium.

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Blog OSCAR

New Tools, New Techniques, New Technology

Dhanush and Tom processing samples in the lab

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.

Preparing for a DNA Extraction in the lab

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.

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2019 OSCAR Student Summer Impact Project

By: Jeremy Williams

This a male Banded Killifish (Fundulus diaphanous). This picture was taken during my first day sampling in Gunston Cove.

Life in the aquatic environment has always had my interest since I was young. It’s just something about life under water that fascinates me. My OSCAR research project this summer has been a phenomenal experience so far. Learning about fish communities and assemblages has shown me a different perspective of life. I never really knew how dynamic and complex a fish’s life could be until I came here. Now, I have developed appreciation, care, and respect for all fishes. In addition to studying about fishes, I also learned how to identify fish on the adult, juvenile, and larval level. I believe that identifying fish can be rewarding because it can get difficult trying find the intricate details to identify each fish at different stages of their lives. Also, being able to go out on the boat every week and seeing the natural scenery of both sample sites is something that the “Average Joe” doesn’t get to see every day.

Our first week at PSC, Ben and I dissected a Remora AKA “Shark Sucker” in Dr. de Mutsert’s fish lab.

Being around other people that are passionate about science and love it just as I do makes me feel right at home. Coming to work and being able to sit in the lab to doing science every day is feeling that I cannot explain. I love every second of arriving to the Potomac Science Center and looking out the window to see that awesome view of the Potomac River. Furthermore, the people in the building are all friendly and are willing to help anyway they can. This might seem small but having key card access to your lab is so awesome! It makes you feel like you are entering in a TOP SECRET room, but it’s just your lab. All this fun and excitement comes with hard work as well. I have taken pride in my research and study and cannot wait to present my project findings at the poster presentation to show what I’ve been working on this entire summer. If I could give advice to future student researchers, it would be to apply to not only just OSCAR internships but to any internship. I guarantee that it will be an experience you will never forget.

In the midst of all this happiness and joy, the entire room smells like fishes!
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Blog OSCAR

Microplastics in The Tidal Freshwater Potomac River

By: Han Nguyen

Figure 1. A surface water sample from Hunting Creek (Alexandria, VA) after a storm, ready for quantification

My name is Han Nguyen and I am a rising junior majoring in Chemistry with a concentration in Biochemistry. This is my first summer participating in the OSCAR Summer Team Impact Project. Prior to participating in this program, I had never conducted a scientific study that is laboratory based or really gotten into the field to collect samples. Hence, what I have been doing in the past two months has been very fascinating because of the luring attraction of “not knowing what I am doing” if that makes sense. Under the supervision of both Dr. Gregory Foster and Dr. Dann Sklarew, I am currently working with another OSCAR student and a high school volunteer on the microplastics team to determine the presence and abundance of microplastics in the aquatic ecosystems of the tidal freshwater Potomac River. I specifically conduct a scientific research to determine the concentrations of microplastics within the environment (i.e., surface water, sediment, stream) and learn more about the relationship between them and population density.

We know that plastic or microplastics contaminating the oceans is one of the world’s growing concerns, but there are things about microplastics that remain understudied. This includes fate, behavior, and effects of microplastics in freshwater. This is why when OSCAR’s microplastics research theme arose, I could not wait to join this amazing team.

Figure 2. The manta net floats on the surface for microplastics sampling in the Anacostia River (Washington, D.C.)

So far this summer my team and I have been doing a lot of field work and processing our collected samples for microplastics quantification. We were very excited to have access to the new manta net designed specifically to sample microplastics that PEREC got this year. I have mainly worked on processing rough samples and dealing with reaction-related tasks, and my teammates would handle the counting and computer work. But, of course we always look out for each other. As we are done with sampling, my team and I now spend most of our time in the lab together examining microplastics through a dissecting microscope. We could not be more excited to present our results to and interact with general and academic audiences at OSCAR Summer 2019 Celebration of Student Scholarship and Impact.

Researching microplastics in the environment is a long-term task and quite challenging, but here with OSCAR initiating this line of research at the Potomac Science Center I am very grateful to OSCAR and my mentors for the opportunities and guidance.

 

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Blog OSCAR

Chau Pham: OSCAR 2018 Summer Experience

Written by: Chau Pham

I am participating in the 2018 summer OSCAR program as a member of the chemistry team at the Potomac Science Center. My research goal is to quantify the concentrations of endocrine disruptive compounds (EDCs) and pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in Gunston Cove. By measuring the present of these chemicals in the watershed, we can further examine the effect of bioaccumulation and the water quality after treatment.

The chemistry team worked with water, zooplankton, filters, sediments, clams, submerged aquatic vegetation, and three species of fish, which were collected by the ecology team. Water samples were processed differently from other samples. Firstly, the collected water was filtered through 2 layers of glass microfiber filter GF/F and GF/D. Then, we used 2 different methods to perform solid phase extraction: HLB, to obtain EDCs, and AXCX to collect PPCPs. The QuEChERS method was used for other samples preparation. Finally, all of the samples were transferred in auto sampler vial in order to load into HPLC/MS/MS, which is a powerful and sensitive instrument to identify and

The evaporation step that we used in extraction of micropollutants from water samples

quantify chemical concentrations in nanograms. The chemistry team was divided into 2 groups to analyze data for EDCs and PPCPs. I along with 2 other members have been working with LabSolution software to analyze the data for EDCs drug schedule. We found different species of sunscreen agents, NSAID, as well as herbicides in samples from Gunston Cove watershed suggesting that wastewater effluent and storm water run-off contribute are sources for pollution and bioaccumulation.

Through summer OSCAR program, not only did I gain valuable skills, I also learned tremendous knowledge about current research at George Mason University. My mentors and the PEREC team have worked hard to arrange brown bag seminar every Friday where I can learn about interesting and exciting research, jobs, and projects on environmental sciences.

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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.

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Blog Education OSCAR

PAID Undergraduate Research Position!

Paid Summer Research for Undergraduates

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/

Watch the video below to see how much last year’s OSCAR students loved their experience!

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Blog Education OSCAR

Micropollutants in the Potomac

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.

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Why are there Drugs in the Potomac River?

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.