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SIUE Students To Study Water Quality With EPA Grant

Workers for the Environmental Protection Agency collect a water sample. SIUE will investigate contaminants in regional water with a grant from the agency.
Environmental Protection Agency
Workers for the Environmental Protection Agency collect a water sample. SIUE will investigate contaminants in regional water with a grant from the agency.

BELLEVILLE — Southern Illinois University Edwardsville will research water quality in the region with a $100,000 educational grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The grant provides funds to train undergraduate students in environmental sampling and analysis over the next two years. The funds will also support teaching the students to communicate the results of their work to the public. Students will be guided by faculty, but they’ll be conducting the day-to-day work, said Kevin Tucker, an assistant professor of chemistry.

“They’ll be the ones actually out in the field doing the collection, in the laboratory doing the analysis,” Tucker said. “In the end they’ll be the ones responsible for the data and standing by their work.” 

The student researchers will focus on how emerging pollutants, like prescription drugs, shampoos and other personal care products, may be concentrated in the local watersheds.

“There is a growing trend of pharmaceuticals as well as personal care products starting to contaminate the environment at a greater rate than we have seen before,” said Robert Dixon, an associate professor of chemistry at SIUE. For example, this can happen when people flush pills down the toilet, he said. 

“These products are eventually put into the environment, into the watershed,” Dixon said. 

Tucker said scientists don’t know enough about how these contaminants interact with the environment. He explained that this research helps, especially as some governments begin to consider regulating what can go down the drain.

The students will also study historically regulated contaminants, like lead and other heavy metals, and biological contaminants like nitrates and phosphorus from farm fertilizers.

Learning about water quality is only one half of the grant, Tucker said, as a large emphasis is placed on teaching the involved students how to collaborate across disciplines and effectively communicate their results to the public.

“That’s not a skill we’re teaching very well at this time,” grant co-investigator Courtney Breckenridge said.

Under the grant, science students will work with journalism, business and other students to investigate and present their results to the public, she said. The university will also work with agencies, including the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, Illinois Corn and thePrescription Pill and Drug Disposal program, to share their results.

“We are trying to take students that have been taking classes for three or four years with some of the time not recognizing what it looks like when you have to deal with community partners and various other institutions,” Dixon said.

This kind of work directly corresponds to what students will face once they graduate, Breckenridge said.

“They need to be able to communicate to their supervisor or funding agency the importance of their work,” she said.

By the end of two years, researchers hope to have a better understanding of the contaminants in the local southern Illinois watershed and a model for how to further investigate these issues on a scale as large as the entire Mississippi system.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

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Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.