Cutting-edge Science

Unusual research and conference opportunities shape careers for Nazareth undergraduates.

by Julie Long and Joanie Eppinga

Blue-green Algae Research & Remediation

    Infographic video narrated by Jacob Murphy '17

    "It's almost a shocked feeling, like 'I can't believe I just did that!'"

    Making discoveries in the lab and seeing something brand new invigorates biology major Alyssa Merrill '17. "All I want to do is tell everyone what I've just done."

    Merrill got a chance to do just that, along with four fellow Nazareth seniors — Jacob Murphy '17 (biology), Sarah Izzo '18 (biology), Julia Widmer '18 (toxicology), and Gannon Connors '18 (toxicology) — at the prestigious 2017 Geological Society of America National Conference in Seattle, Wash. The students presented four environmental quality and remediation research projects at the conference, and their posters were well received, according to Assistant Professor of Biology Padmini Das, Ph.D., who mentored and accompanied the students.

    "Many people stopped by to see the students' posters," Das reported. Presenting and being questioned by other scientists for nearly four hours gave the students "a lot of insight into future experiments."

    "Many professionals from academia, industries, as well as government sectors stopped by to see the students' posters, applauded their research, and contributed excellent ideas for future proceedings and implementation of these projects," Das reported. "Our students were especially praised for the depth of research they achieved at the undergraduate level. Most of the other posters in the session were presented by graduate students or postdoctoral fellows."

    The experiments that led the students to attend this conference were all about discoveries that may help to protect the planet. Along with 10 other current students, seven alumni, and 24 high school students who participated in hands-on summer research at Nazareth, and with the support of Das and of Toxicology Program Director Stephanie Zamule, Ph.D., and Visiting Assistant Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry David Giacherio, Ph.D., the students worked on projects with the potential to protect lakes and bees:

    • Finding ways to remove excess nutrients to prevent harmful, beach-closing algae in Lake Ontario and the Genesee River;
    • Using microorganisms to break down pesticides that harm bees, to lessen the effects; and
    • Discovering that a western New York native grass has the potential to remove harmful BPA from water systems, possibly leading to a way to remove the toxin from the environment before levels become high enough to hurt people.

    The Geological Society of America (GSA) is an international scientific society that encourages cooperative research and public dialogue on geoscience issues and supports all levels of earth-science education. The students' projects will be presented to journals for publishing.

    After the conference, several of the student researchers presented their findings to Nazareth President Daan Braveman and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dianne Oliver, Ph.D., expertly fielding questions about the hard science and the real-world implications of the work. "So you shouldn't go swimming in Lake Ontario?" Braveman asked. "Not during the summer," replied Murphy.

    Hands-on research and presentations at academic conferences are uncommon experiences for undergraduates at most colleges, and Nazareth's unusual opportunities make the students hungry for more. All the conference attendees intend to pursue graduate studies — some of them in fields completely different than they originally expected.

    Both Murphy and Merrill came to Nazareth expecting to become physicians, but, as Merrill puts it, "Once I began research, I realized science has more options than just becoming a doctor." Her experiences sharpened her ideas of what she'd like to do for her life's work, and now she plans to study toxicology in hopes of improving pharmaceutical toxicity testing.

    Similarly, Murphy has switched his graduate school applications from medical schools to combination M.D.–Ph.D. programs. Spending more than three years doing research at Nazareth showed him that his options were broader than he'd realized, and he notes that those years provide another benefit: "The opportunities we get here to do undergraduate research will give me a leg up in applying to graduate schools."

    As the graduating student researchers take their knowledge and experience to new places and problems, their work will continue to have a lasting impact on this region. Nazareth is collaborating with community partners such as Monroe County Pure Waters, seeking solutions to prevent beach closures and environmental harm.

    Julie Long is Nazareth’s chief public relations officer; Joanie Eppinga is a writer and editor in Spokane, Washington.

    seattle conference

    Jacob Murphy '17, Gannon Connors '18, Padmini Das, Sarah Izzo '18, and Alyssa Merrill '17 at the Geological Society of America international conference in Seattle, Wash.

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    Four Naz Projects

    Algae Blooms in Lake Ontario

    Lake Ontario has been experiencing massive algal blooms, which are so prominent that they can be visualized from outer space. Gannon Connors analyzed the water quality year-round where the Genesee River and Lake Ontario meet to measure the growing algae problem and how it harms marine life. He found that agricultural runoff is contaminating the river with large amounts of phosphate and nitrate which is leading to algae growth. The phosphate levels in the summer are above EPA standards and he found dead zones where oxygen levels were too low in the water to sustain marine life. The proposed solution Connors and his fellow researchers recommend is to construct a wetland where a native species plant could filter and absorb the phosphates and nitrates around the bank of the Genesee River to stop the pollution from entering Lake Ontario.

    Genesee River Pollution Prevention

    In a related research project, Sarah Izzo and Jacob Murphy led a team that analyzed point sources in Avon and Bergen, N.Y., to measure contributions of nitrate and phosphorus into tributaries that lead into the Genesee River. In Bergen, the pair found significantly higher levels of phosphate near a sewage treatment site are increasing algae growth in the Genesee River near Lake Ontario. Their research proposes using water treatment residuals (WTRs) to absorb the excess nitrate and phosphate to protect the tributaries from excess pollution, in turn halting the growing algae problem. The Nazareth research team is working with Monroe County Pure Waters to supply them with WTR, which is a waste product for Monroe County. WTR can take on up to 90 percent phosphorus in 24 hours, which would make an outstanding filtering system.

    Two Popular Insecticides Hurt Honey Bee Colonies

    Nazareth research led by students Julia Widmer and Alyssa Merrill shows that while thiamethoxam (THM) and imidacloprid (IMI), have become popular in the past decade since they are less toxic than other insecticides to birds and mammals, they appear to have detrimental effects on bees. The insecticide THM is used in farming to keep insects from attacking crops, but is causing colony collapse disorder (CCD) in bees as well as developmental neurotoxicity in some species. The students found that using bacterium such as e. Coli could absorb thiamethoxam.

    Cleaning Up BPA in Landfills

    BPA is a common industrial polymer that was used in plastic production for decades, and a tremendous quantity of products containing BPA are in landfills, leaching BPA into the
    environment. Led by students Jacob Murphy and Alyssa Merrill, Nazareth students studied BPA in plastic bottles in landfills and ways to remove it. The hotter temperatures get, the more likely BPA is to leach out of polymer plastics in landfills and run into the water. If BPA were to enter water sources it could lead to infertility, obesity, and tumor development. The students found that a native grass has potential for cleaning up BPA contaminated systems. In extensive research, the team has been able to produce 50% removal of BPA leached out of plastic waste. They hope this research can lead to a way to remove BPA from the environment before levels become high enough to cause damage to human populations.