I remember the first time that I participated in novel research. How excited I was! That excitement quickly turned to pure terror. What do you mean no one has ever answered this question? We do not know the outcome? How do I know I am right? What happens if I am wrong? As I continued, I gained confidence in myself and in my work. It was then that I realized that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, to seek out the unknown and make a difference through scientific discovery. This was my senior year of undergrad at Duquesne University and I was taken a 4 credit lab course, that has been coined "superlab".
Superlab comes in 2 parts, the first semester everyone takes the same course where the students are introduced to a range of lab techniques involving classic microbiology, molecular biology, and protein purification. The second semester comes in several concentrations (physiology, cell biology, and microbiology) where the students are exposed to an in-depth look at a specific topic. I had enrolled in Dr. Nancy Trun's microbiology superlab. This course provides the unique opportunity to engage in novel research, allowing the students to experience science in a way that they typically are not exposed too. They develop hypotheses, design experiments to test these hypotheses, and carry out the designed experiments. Allowing the students to "take the wheel" of their own education, encourages active involvement in the learning experience. They are not just going through the motions, in fact, each individual is creating their own path. I credit this course for the reason that I am in graduate school obtaining a Ph.D. with a concentration in microbiology.
Everybody loves field trip day! Brady, Benita, and Natalie (left to right) on the deck that crosses over the effluent.
I now have the opportunity to be a teaching assistant in the very lab course that inspired me to be where I am today. It provides me the unique perspective that allows me to relate with the students on a more personal level, as I was in their shoes not to long ago. I see the excitement and I see the fear. It is definitely a rollercoaster of emotions (for the students and myself), becoming a scientist is no easy feat! But the students quickly adapt and develop solid hypotheses and execute sound experimental design. It is truly a joy watching the students gain confidence and rise to the challenge, surpassing all of their (and mine) expectations.
Lowber Passive Remediation System.
The class focuses on bioremediation, specifically involving passive remediation systems designed to treat coal mine drainage . The students learn about passive systems, what is known, and what remains unknown. Over the course of the first 6 weeks they form hypotheses and design experiments. Then comes my favorite day of the semester.... (*drum roll please*) FIELD TRIP DAY. We get to take the students to a remediation site (Lowber, see "Field Sites") so that they can collect their own samples. This is always such a fun day, the students really enjoy being in the field. Its funny to hear what the students think the site was going to be like, one student said to me "I thought you climbed deep down into a cave to get to the site". I am sure spelunking was never mentioned in class!
Melissa (left) came ready to go in her boots and fanny pack, while Dania (right) took more of a fashion forward approach, staying pretty in pink.
I am not the only one that gets excited about field trip day, the students do too! Some students came decked out, ready to climb directly into the remediation site, while others were not quite sure what to expect. We started the day with a little background about the site, where Dr. Trun explained how the system worked and what to expect as we moved down through the system. The source pond, where the discharge surfaced from under ground, was a distinct green color. This pond contains high levels of iron and sulfate and has not yet had a chance to precipitate any of the iron. That will quickly change as it moves through the system, turning all of the ponds a bright orange color.
Dr. Trun talks to the students about Lowber and how the passive remediation system works
After the talk, we moved to the end of the system. That way we could work from the effluent, the end of the wetlands, back up to the beginning of the system (where our cars were). Along the way, I noticed that the ponds were orange well into the wetlands. This is not usually the case, but February has had a record amount of rainfall, ~5" alone in the week before we came out. Heavy rainfall increases flow rate, decreasing retention time and does not allow enough time for contaminants (iron especially) to precipitate out. Even the effluent remained tainted with orange.
The yellow boy (orange water) continuing well into the wetlands.
Even after passing through the entire system, the effluent remained orange.
The students really jumped in (some literally) and began to sample. All together we collected 50L of water across all of the 6 settling ponds, the wetlands, and the source pond. The samples will be used to make media, be plated on a variety of selective media types, stained to identify morphology and biochemical properties of bacteria present, and enriched to isolate sulfur, manganese, and iron bacteria. Plant growth and the relationship with rhizosphere bacteria, as well as Sewickley Creek were also sampled for further analysis.
The class disperses with bottles in hand.
Melissa just jumped right in and began to sample the wetlands.
Ali using the sampling pool to get a slurry sample..
Rasha sampling in pond 1. She really took a liking to sampling, jumping at every opportunity to collect slurry.
The system looked so much different from when I was here in January. Everything had thawed, the geese had returned, and biofilms were becoming more prevalent. As we moved from pond to pond, I tried to point out all of the changes that were occurring. Soon, the algae and cyanobacteria will begin to bloom and the wetlands will return to green. Spring is near!
Biofilms forming entering into pond 4 (left) and on the shore of pond 2 (right).
The geese have returned in preparation for spring.
The weather was beautiful and the field trip was a success. The students got to witness the devastation that was happening as a result of abandoned coal mine drainage (AMD). This leads the students to be even more invested in finding possible solutions to treating AMD. It is through this experience, that we (as educators) are able to take what was taught to them in class and materialize it in a way that you can't possibly experience in a classroom.