The science of water
Goucher students are examining something lurking in the water, and it may not have teeth, claws, or scales, but it’s certainly terrifying. By testing water samples for microplastics, nitrates, phosphates, dissolved oxygen, bacteria, and pH balance, students discovered a different kind of monster.
By Natalie Eastwood
Dana Jensen ’20 wonders how she must look trekking across campus in knee-high rubber boots with a metal fish trap hooked under one arm and leftover rat food in the other. She may get some strange looks as she disappears into Goucher’s woods, but she doesn’t let that stop her from being a scientist. She has fish to catch, plastic to find, and a hypothesis to test.
As a double major in dance and biology, Jensen is fascinated with ecological systems and the interconnectedness of the world. She is curious if larger organisms, specifically the Eastern mosquito fish, are ingesting microplastics. Microplastics are just as they sound—tiny particles of plastic that have eroded off of larger pieces of plastic. Specifically, Jensen is looking for plastic microfibers, which are a type of microplastic that wash off of synthetic clothing.
To gauge the scope of plastic infiltration in the natural world, one of the problems Jensen faced was finding water that did not contain any plastic. She tested the ponds at the front and back of campus and even distilled water, and was still finding plastic under her microscope.
“As we find obstacles,” Jensen said, “we have to find new ways to overcome them and keep doing the research, even though there are a lot of unforeseen things. But I guess that’s what research is—problem-solving and finding solutions as you go along.”
Jensen’s investigation of microplastics is an offshoot of Cynthia Kicklighter’s research. Kicklighter is an associate biology professor and, last year, she hypothesized that municipal water would contain more plastic than well water. The research incorporated much of the campus, with students bringing water samples from home, and faculty and staff doing the same—some even reaching out to their neighbors.
Rachel Kieffer ’18 helped with the first leg of the research as her senior capstone project, which is part of the new Goucher Commons curriculum. Kieffer now works for Nevada Conservation Corps, building and maintaining hiking trails in California and Nevada. “It’s a lot of shoveling,” she said, but she’s glad to be outside, not behind a desk, and continuing the skills she learned at Goucher as an environmental studies major with a concentration in environmental science and a minor in biology.
As a senior at Goucher, Kieffer presented her research at the annual Goucher Symposium and was surprised by the level of people’s interest, even though her results comparing well and municipal water were inconclusive. (She needed more well-water samples for an accurate analysis.)
“The idea of drinking plastic threatens people,” Kieffer said. “Not being able to see the microplastics with the naked eye but knowing you’re ingesting them is terrifying. There’s so much unknown about this subject and how it relates to human health.”
The microplastics are like mini sponges for chemicals, so when organisms ingest plastic, it’s possible they’re ingesting those chemicals, which are magnified as they go up the food chain, Kicklighter explained. However, because there is so little research on the effects of microplastics in animals and people, scientists have few definitive answers.
Despite the lack of knowledge, people are enthusiastic to learn more and find solutions, Kieffer said. “Talking with different faculty and parents on the topic, I realized how many ideas there are and how many people might be able to figure out this problem,” Kieffer said. “It’s not a black-and-white problem, and there’s not a simple solution.”
Baltimore’s water treatment plant is more than 100 years old, and it wasn’t designed to filter out microplastics, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, Kicklighter said. It’s not easy to keep plastic from entering our water systems, nor is it easy to get out, she said.
Kicklighter’s initial research question is also only one part of an interconnected problem.
As part of an independent study, Jensen has been charging ahead—with Kicklighter by her side in blue rubber boots—to ask if the organisms in the water are ingesting microplastics, and if so, how are they impacted?
Jensen said she is constantly problem-solving and taking the research in new directions as they venture into this uncharted world of misplaced plastic. For instance, her first step to determine if the fish were ingesting the microplastics was to see if they were excreting the plastic. Jensen and Kicklighter pulled fish from the ponds and placed them in what they thought was plastic-free water so they could count the plastic particles after the fish had excreted.
“We were having some difficulty with that because as it turns out, the plastic-free water source we were using actually has plastic, so we’ve been testing all kinds of water sources and it seems everything is contaminated, which is very sad, and it makes it very difficult to quantify our research,” Jensen said.
Jensen and Kicklighter think that part of the problem with their distilled water was that plastic particles were stuck to the glass containers and even floating in the air. Since washing plastic particles off containers using plastic-contaminated water is rather ineffective, they now rinse all surfaces with acetone.
While working through that problem, Jensen and Kicklighter began dissecting the fish and dousing the gut contents with fluorescent Nile red dye, which sticks to the plastic and makes it easy to identify.
“We’re going to try to use it in the gut contents and see what is illuminated, what fluoresces. I do expect to find plastics in the fish—on top of living in the contaminated water, they’re eating other organisms that have plastics in their guts,” Jensen said. “If we do find plastic, the next step would be to see what the effect is.”
Jensen said Kicklighter values her opinion and input as a researcher, and they work collaboratively, with Kicklighter there as an unfailing resource. Her enthusiasm for her students is palpable. Kicklighter said she loves to watch students take something and run with it in their own direction as they connect their passions to the research.
Kicklighter incorporates as much hands-on and out-of-the-classroom learning as possible—whether it’s identifying trees in Goucher’s woods or picking up trash at Fort McHenry. As much as she takes her students into the natural world, Kicklighter brings equal amounts of her own passion back into the classroom. Her research on microplastics was born from a personal interest that she incorporated into her First-Year Seminar (FYS), Oceans, the Forgotten Frontier: Submarines, Sea Slugs, and Slime. Like Jensen and Kieffer, her FYS students examined water samples for microplastics.
FYS is a part of Goucher Commons that allows for flexibility, Kicklighter said. In a 100, 200, or 300 level science class, there is specific material that she needs to teach so that students are prepared for the next leg of their education, but she doesn’t feel that pressure in these FYS seminars. “I choose things that I personally am interested in because I think if I’m more engaged with it, that bleeds off onto the students,” Kicklighter said. And with a pink octopus skirt and ocean-themed jewelry, no one could doubt Kicklighter’s passion for studying marine life.
Kicklighter and Jensen aren’t the only ones examining water samples for contaminants.
Dr. Anna Jozwick, assistant professor of biology, threw herself and her students into the deep end last spring in her first Center Pair Exploration (CPE) course, CPED 201–Thirsty for change? A Hands-on, Immersive Class on Local Water Quality. The CPEs are part of the Goucher Commons and replaced general education requirements as a way to provide more impactful learning.
Jozwick’s students took water samples from Goucher’s ponds and streams, but instead of microplastics, they tested for nitrates, phosphates, dissolved oxygen, fecal bacteria, and pH balance and then analyzed how weather and the seasons affect levels of contamination.
The purpose of the CPEs is to answer one deep-dive question instead of taking a broad overview of the subject, Jozwick said. In this case, that question is, what is good, healthy water? And what does that look like for the Chesapeake Bay and for people?
“The CPEs let students explore their own questions when they’re down that rabbit hole, and they incorporate different discussions. Even though it’s a science course, we’re not only talking about science. We are talking about how to solve problems by merging science with other disciplines,” Jozwick said. “One discipline alone isn’t going to do anything, right? Scientists can tell you there’s a problem, or the problem is getting better, but when it comes to enacting change, you need to have somebody in politics changing regulations or an engineer fixing the sewer system. One discipline can’t do that alone.”
Judy Lewent ’70 can attest to that idea in the professional world, even if she never took part in Goucher’s CPE courses. Lewent didn’t major in science, but that hasn’t kept her from loving the field. As the former executive vice president and chief financial officer of the biopharmaceutical company Merck & Co., Lewent said she worked closely with research scientists, and she has seen developments in science transform the pharmaceutical industry.
“I just became fascinated with everything that was going on in the sciences and just wanted to inspire young students and, quite frankly, young women to consider careers in the sciences,” Lewent said, which is why she continues to be a major supporter of Goucher’s programs like the Summer Science Research Program.
“Science is the key to address the major issues and challenges around the globe, whether it’s climate change or unanswered questions in health care, or understanding the human genetic makeup,” Lewent said.
The promise of scientific advancement holds many solutions to the problems the world faces, Lewent said. “That’s got to be a top priority, and in order to do that we need qualified and educated professionals.”
That starts with Goucher students.
For Jozwick’s CPE course, her students were not science majors, but that’s kind of the whole point of the class—to provide exposure to and create interest in a subject that can be intimidating.
Jozwick said she hopes all of her students become “citizen scientists—people who take steps to care about or even collect data on the environment, and understand why and how the natural world works the way it does.” A CPE course asks students to wrestle with a big question, and in a science class they have to learn all of the background on how to be a scientist first, Jozwick said. When students took water samples from around campus, before the analytical learning could take place, they had to first learn how to take water samples and run different tests on them.
“I want them to see what it’s like to be a scientist. This is a CPE, they should jump into a discipline that they’re not used to. With any natural science class, there’s going to be a lab. The lab that I wanted them to do is not just a textbook lab, where they measure something, but actually go out and see what we do day to day as scientists,” Jozwick said. “Analyzing water samples for contaminants is something they could do as a citizen scientist.”
She wants her students, and everyone in the world, to realize that scientists are not intimidating. They don’t wear white coats with pocket calculators. They’re real people, she said.
Sam Anderson ’21 is a political science major gone scientist. Even though Anderson’s interests are in government and politics, that doesn’t stop him from considering the impacts for environmental sustainability when approaching a problem. Like sunglasses stacked on top of one another, he sees the world through many tinted hues. When he joined Jozwick’s CPE class, he was entering a room of people who didn’t think like scientists or see the world as he does.
“One of the most important things about the CPE courses is applying your own discipline to whatever the course material is,” Anderson said. “We all came into this course with a different lens than a science major would have. For me, when I was thinking of the solutions to the problems we were exploring, I thought more along the lines of what can governments do, what can nonprofit agencies do, to address these problems, rather than what can the EPA or science do.”
Jozwick designed her class so that students would realize the importance of multiple perspectives. One assignment included “town halls,” in which students interview both a scientist in the field and a non-scientist, and ask them what they think the solutions are to decrease pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Then, they talk as a class about what they learned. “One discipline is not going to get you anywhere,” Jozwick said. “You need to work with others, so we really try to integrate different disciplines to solve problems. That’s one of the main, overarching goals of the class.”
“The town halls showed us if we were to apply these skills in the real world, we wouldn’t want to just stick with people who think like us and have the same work background,” Anderson said. “We need to collaborate with people from all different disciplines.”
Everything in Jozwick’s class culminated in the last project, a mock Citizen Science Grant proposal to decrease one source of contamination in the Chesapeake Bay. Anderson and his group members wrote a grant that proposed growing a plant buffer around car washes to absorb the soapy runoff. Soap contains nutrients that result in algae growth and offsets the balance of the ecosystem in the bay, Anderson said.
For their proposal, they used the research they gathered from their water samples to prove that contamination is an issue. Additionally, the town hall interviews proved useful in explaining why the car wash runoff is a problem, why someone needs to take action, and, most importantly, why their grant should be funded. They wanted to find a sustainable solution, not a Band-Aid, he added.
Talking about environmental issues can be dismal and daunting, Jozwick said, which is why her class focuses on the solutions that can realistically be implemented. Students even followed requirements from a real grant, so that if they wanted to submit it, they could.
Although Anderson and his classmates were learning to be scientists, Jozwick was learning, too, and adapted the course to meet her students’ needs.
“As much as we were willing to give to her, she was willing to give us back,” Anderson said. “I appreciated all of that from her and the opportunity to learn from her because she was a different-thinking mind, but I think she also appreciated the chance to work with us, non-science students, to see how we interact with the science material.”
Anderson’s takeaway: He has another pair of sunglasses to perch on his nose. “You don’t necessarily have to be involved in the scientific research of the environment to still be engaged in creating solutions to environmental problems,” he said.
If you ask Jozwick how her students (science and non-science majors alike) will create a ripple effect, she’s very precise in her answer: “Oh, I think they are the ripple effect.” As their teacher, Jozwick considers it her responsibility to help them become informed citizens so that they ripple in a positive way for the natural world.
“I want them to understand that they’re constantly interacting with the environment, and they’re not just human beings acting alone,” Jozwick said. “They’re a part of a larger ecosystem, and their actions affect way more in the environment than what they think.”
A deeper look into the science of water
For more of the story, and to find out what mucus has to do with it, read “Just A Little Fishy.”