iUTAH EPSCoR fellows study water treatment, lichen

On August 2nd, a dozen undergraduates from across Utah completed the 9-week iUTAH Undergraduate Research Fellows (iFellows) Program. These students gained valuable hands-on experience working with researchers involved in the iUTAH project, a statewide NSF-funded effort dedicated to maintaining and improving water sustainability in Utah.

Several iFellows shared “notes from the field” as they worked on their individual projects. Below, Utah State University student Brianne Palmer shares some of her experiences as an iFellow researcher this summer:

“During my experience with iFellows, I have been working at the University of Utah with Dave Bowling to learn how to identify, grind and eventually analyze lichen for stable nitrogen isotope ratios. Larry St. Clair, from Brigham Young University, taught us how to identify various lichen in the Wasatch Front. Lichens are composite organisms made up of both fungi and photosynthetic organism, and can often be found on trees. They are also a good indicator of pollution in the atmosphere and are useful when analyzing the effect of the inversions on the ecosystem.

These little organisms have proved to be an interesting project and I learn something new every day. For instance, I learned that ‘normal’ people think a girl staring at a tree at Liberty Park through a hand lens is odd, and that sometimes it is better to say ‘the orange stuff’ instead of Xanthomendoza monatana. But everyone seems to ‘lichen’ puns.

‘You lichen what you see?’

I have also helped out with some water sampling at the Jordan River, pumped water out of wells in Red Butte Canyon and built some muscle setting up a weather tower near Red Butte Reservoir. I am also learning how to use Twitter like a scientist.”

And from Weber State University student and iFellow Stephanie Mitts:

“As an iFellow, I am working alongside Steve Burian at the University of Utah to compile data on various factors that affect rainwater-harvesting (RWH) programs. RWH is the process of collecting rainwater and using it unfiltered for non-potable purposes such as irrigation, toilet flushing, and air conditioning systems. It can also be filtered and used for drinking and bathing. I am in the process of composing a survey and contacting established RWH programs across the country in order to collect data that I will use to create a model that can be referenced by RWH startup programs.

The iFellows program has also provided me with the opportunity to work in the field. I have participated in constructing a deck for tipping buckets that monitor water release, planting bioretention gardens that simulate various Utah ecosystems, and building flow sensors that will be placed in the Red Butte Creek. Throughout the rest of the summer I have plans to collect water and soil samples from various watersheds, construct and learn how to work monitoring equipment, and test water and soil samples in the lab.

Being an iFellow is such a great opportunity and experience. I look forward to continuing my learning!”

Finally, USU student Hayden Campbell:

“For my iFellow research project, I am looking at the error associated with taking nutrient samples from below a wastewater treatment plant. I am looking at possible errors such as the location of sampling, filtering, freezing, and errors from handling the samples during analysis. For my sample collection, I went to Park City with my mentor, Michelle Baker, and two graduate students to sample from Silver Creek, along which lies a wastewater treatment plant.

We collected samples above and below where the filtered water from the treatment plant entered into the stream as well as a section of the filtered water from the treatment plant before it entered the stream. While collecting the samples, we gathered grab samples and filtered a portion of them using both a manual syringe and an electric pump. These samples will later be analyzed for key nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient compounds. After analysis, I will look at the nutrient measurements and determine what techniques used in sampling have the potential to create error. This is especially important because we want to be able to report accurate nutrient measurements, particularly below wastewater treatment plants, to ensure that treatment plants are adequately doing their job in removing nutrients. An excess of nutrients can ultimately be harmful to animals living in the water.”

Visit the iUTAH EPSCoR website to view the full 2013 iFellows cohort roster, including the seven Utah State University undergraduates involved, and the iUTAH EPSCoR Facebook page for iUTAH project news and upcoming opportunities. Applications for the 2014 iFellows summer research program will be available in the early spring.

-Seth Merrill, RGS Communications