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Blog OSCAR

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 In the News OSCAR

Ecotoxicology of microplastics in the Potomac River watershed: Effects on Aquatic Organisms, Mechanisms of Fragmentation, and Vectors of Micropollutants and Microbial pathogens

Written by Maria Rumyantseva

There have been numerous discussions on the issue of water contamination, and one might ask what novelty could this project possibly bring about? Well, the pandemic summer of 2020 dictated a new twist as the faculty members as well as students must have adjusted and adapted to a new condition with resilience, enthusiasm, creativity, and flexibility. In this blog I will share my personal experience participating in the project, I will describe the research process for a meta-analysis and how we decided to attain that virtually.

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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 Education OSCAR

Katie Russels Wins Student Excellence Award

Undergraduate Katie Russell conducted research on river herring with Dr. de Mutsert. She presented at the GMU Spring 2020 Symposium, where she was also award the OSCAR Student Excellence Award.

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Blog OSCAR

Ben Rhoades Wins Student Excellence Award

Advised by Dr. Amy Fowler and Dr. Dann Sklarew, ESP undergraduate Ben Rhoades won the 2020 OSCAR Student Excellence Award for his research on microplastics in the Potomac.

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Blog OSCAR

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

My Research, In a Snail Shell

By: Grace Loonam

Photo taken at Hopyard Landing, a site on the Rappahannock River. This sample was taken in twenty minutes, with a total of 272 invasive and 90 native snails being collected during this time.

This summer, I have been working on a Summer Team Impact Project at the Potomac Science Center in Woodbridge, Virginia. I have been studying an invasive species of snails―termed mystery snails―and by collecting samples of these invaders and their native counterparts, I aim to learn more about the mystery snails as a whole, as well as how their parasitology differs from that of the snails that are native to this region. This research is important because both invasive species and parasites threaten the biodiversity of an ecosystem, and biodiversity is important for ensuring that the ecosystem can withstand stressors and catastrophic events that would otherwise destabilize the ecological balance. The overarching project is focused on aquatic communities as bioindicators of change, and although the other members of my team specifically focus on the Potomac River for their research, I also sample from other rivers in the Northern Virginia area.

It’s been very exciting to take part in research that allows me to experience lab-based research as well as fieldwork. The amount that I’ve learned in both settings is unreal (pro-tip: it’s a lot easier to find and collect snails at low tide), and the following picture was taken of me while collecting snails from a site on the Rappahannock for the second time, as we could hardly find anything the first time around.

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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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Blog OSCAR

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 OSCAR

Brian Kim: Researching Fish on the Potomac

Students record the length of live caught fish before returning them to the river.

My name is Brian Kim and I am a member of the OSCAR fish team at the Potomac Science Center (PSC). Over the course of this summer, I have been going out to Gunston Cove and Hunting Creek located within the Potomac River to collect fish species. My research focuses on assessing the diet items of the fish species and determining if there is a significant difference between the two locations as well as any differences in submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) and non-aquatic submerged vegetation (NSAV) areas within each location. The most enjoyable part of this experience has been the process of the actual fish collection. There have been two separate trips for each location where we would use a series of seine nets, fyke nets and trawls to catch fish from as little as 10 mm to as large as 530 mm. The trawls were the most thrilling method because we usually caught the largest specimens during each trial. As each trawl was hauled onto the boat, there was a rush of excitement as to see which specimens we caught and how many. Once we had recorded all required data on each fish, the samples were taken back to the Potomac Science Center to begin the process of answering the question “What exactly has each fish species been eating?”

Five juvenile fish that were the last meal of a yellow perch.

The majority of my time at the PSC has been spent dissecting the stomachs from the fish samples and opening them up to see what was inside. Each stomach from the fish species differed in some way both internally and externally. The most exciting stomach contents that I have found so far came from a Yellow Perch that had eaten five juvenile fish within the last day it was caught. I was able to identify the five juveniles as three White Perch and two Spottail Shiners. There have been various different prey items in the stomachs such as amphipods, chironomids, gastropods and aquatic insects that must now be analyzed. Using the stomach contents from each fish species, I will be able to determine which prey items are the most impactful as well as how location, habitat and fish species differ in diets. My time at the PSC and with OSCAR has been the most exciting summer during my undergraduate years and I hope that in the future I will be able to return and continue to work on related projects.