Re-Discovering Science: A Story By OSCAR Student Alex Marchesani

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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.

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Students working with Professor Greg Foster to analyze results of contaminant levels in fish

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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OSCAR Students Collect Fish Data

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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 Pic-1research 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?”

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 Pic-2the 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.

Micropollutant Research by Current OSCAR Student, Sabrina

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My name is Sabrina. I am a current student in OSCAR program for summer 2018. My work is about investigation and fate of emerging contaminants in Gunston Cove of Potomac river in Alexandria. We extract micropollutants from water, sediment and fish samples and use liquid chromatography-mass spectrum (LC-MS/MS) method to analyze the extracts. We solid phase extract the micropollutants from water samples and use QuEChERS to extract them from sediments and fish and then run the extracts in the LC-Ms/MS instrument and we analyze the results. After that, we apply the KABAM model to predict the bioaccumulation of chemicals in organisms’ tissues. 

More interestingly, the work is collaborative, and this gives me a good opportunity to interact with people with different background and be involved in group work. This research is the best experience in my academic pathway because I feel that I absorb lot of information related to my field and I am surrounded by a huge, friendly and experienced team working with me in the lab. Moreover, this research involves lot of data analysis and use a lot of literature resources where I learn more about my research and related topics and I develop skills in data analysis and time management. I learn from every single step of the process, strengthen my experience in lab work, interact with people with high experience and learn to work under pressure, which I can apply in my daily life as well. I, also, should admit that this research is a guide for me to pursuit my graduate program in the same field of study.       

Outreach Events During Summer Impact Research for Undergraduates

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Hi! I’m Emily, I’m a rising junior at Mason, and I’m lucky to be an OSCAR student this summer! The team I work with is studying the Potomac River, and we work at the Potomac Science Center ( a new Mason campus in Woodbridge, VA)

In addition to doing our research, we have been able to do some local outreach events, teaching kids about the water and the invertebrates in it!

The first outreach event was with Fort Belvoir Middle School, when they have their Water Quality Field Day. They come to the Fairfax Water treatment plant, and there are tables set up throughout the whole plant to teach them new things! It was a super fun day, and the kids seemed super interested. Our table was about talking to kids about the water & why river mussels are so important to the Potomac river & also explaining the invasive species (corbicula clams & mystery snails!)

The second outreach event was at Occoquan Regional park for their grand opening! This day was all about turbidity (how much dirt is in the water, and how clear it is) and also what kind of zooplankton are in the water! There was a microscope w a daphnia (a type of zooplankton commonly found in the Potomac River), and jars with different turbidity levels to show the difference! 

I love outreach events, they make my job so much fun, and to teach kids about what I do is awesome!
 

OSCAR video: “What’s in Our Water?”

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George Mason (https://www2.gmu.edu/) undergraduate research, led by principal investigators Amy Fowler and Kim de Mutsert, who are researchers at the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (Perec.gmu.edu). In the summer of 2017, this team project looked at the effects of micropollutants on the Potomac River watershed. Students and faculty discuss some of the results of the study and the future of this work. Projects were funded by the Students as Scholars at Mason (https://oscar.gmu.edu/) as well as the Patriot Green Fund (https://green.gmu.edu/patriot-green/) , and the videos were produced by graduate student, Chelsea Gray, thanks to the Virginia Sea Grant (https://vaseagrant.org/).

OSCAR video: “Micropollutants in the Potomac River”

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George Mason (https://www2.gmu.edu/) undergraduate research, led by principal investigators Amy Fowler and Kim de Mutsert, who are researchers at the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (Perec.gmu.edu). In the summer of 2017, this team project looked at the effects of micropollutants on the Potomac River watershed. Projects were funded by the Students as Scholars at Mason (https://oscar.gmu.edu/) as well as the Patriot Green Fund (https://green.gmu.edu/patriot-green/) , and the videos were produced by graduate student, Chelsea Gray, thanks to the Virginia Sea Grant (https://vaseagrant.org/).