Students' water research satisfies thirst for knowledge

Heather Nortz and Michael Rollins are two of five students who participated in a summer project exploring the health of the freshwater Potomac River environment. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Growing up in upstate Fairport, N.Y., Heather Nortz was always outside, exploring nature. Growing up in Manassas, Va., Michael Rollins was constantly fishing and kayaking on the Potomac River.

It is no surprise, then, that the George Mason University students, both of whom are majoring in environmental science, jumped at the chance to participate in a summer project exploring the health of the freshwater Potomac River environment.

“Who doesn’t need water?” Rollins said.

“It’s just so relevant to everything,” Nortz added.

The 10-week project examines the ecosystem’s health through food web dynamics and the presence of pharmaceutical chemicals in Gunston Cove and Hunting Creek, both of which feed into the Potomac.

George Mason’s Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center coordinates the program with co-principal investigators Kim de Mutsert and Amy Fowler. Student grants came from Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR). Additional research grants came from Virginia Sea Grant and Mason’s Patriot Green Fund.

The research adds to the center’s broad spectrum of environmental inquiry and exploration. It also is invaluable to the hands-on student experience.

“It’s crucial,” said de Mutsert. “No matter how interactive you try to make a lecture, it’s pretty passive.”

“We brainstorm,” she said of going into the field. “What are the research questions? What are they going to look at to get the actual experience of doing science?”

In addition to Rollins, a senior, and Nortz, a junior, other students involved are seniors Samantha Alexander and Tabitha King (both environmental science majors), and junior Lisa McAnulty (chemistry).

Their jobs include examining the area’s fish composition and the invertebrates they are consuming, as well as the plants fish use for habitat and the presence of pharmaceutical and personal care products in the water.

Treatment plants are generally not designed to remove pharmaceuticals from water, a Harvard Health Publications newsletter reported. And that, de Mutsert said, means there hasn’t been much research into the amount of pharmaceuticals in fish tissue, which would indicate their prevalence in the environment.

“That’s something new,” she said. “I’d say refining the methods of can we actually find these contaminants in fish tissue would be a outcome beyond the student experience.”

“Especially if we actually find something that’s relevant, like concentrations that could be harming the environment,” Nortz said.

For Rollins, who is studying the diversity of organisms in Gunston Cove’s vegetation beds, the trick was fashioning a device to siphon out the organisms from the plant debris he collects. The debris is gathered using a 4-inch diameter PVC pipe that takes a core sample of water and sediment. The sample is then filtered through a sieve.

Nortz, who is studying how humans influence the flow of pharmaceuticals into the water, said one of the program benefits is helping out with other parts of the research.

In addition to her lab work, she has helped collect water, sediment and fish samples, and helped Rollins process samples of invertebrates he collected from vegetation beds. Those opportunities, Nortz said, opened her eyes to other career paths within environmental science such as being an environmental impact assessment specialist or an environmental auditor, consultant or policy officer.

“It’s amazing to see how quickly they can grow under a really intense summer of doing all this stuff,” Fowler said of the students.