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The Reach

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Testing the Waters

Testing the Waters

Twice a week, members of the Omicron Alpha Chapter at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s (MGCCC) Jefferson Davis Campus can be seen dangling equipment from bridges to test the water supply in their area. Their initial results landed them a meeting with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. 

The chapter’s Honors in Action Project was an in-depth study of the water quality of the Turkey Creek watershed in Gulfport, Mississippi, which is a popular waterway for fishing, swimming and canoeing for local residents. Students also researched the EPA’s Gulf of Mexico Program and the existing measures taken in the Turkey Creek area.

“We learned from our research that it was an area that had previously been looked at by the EPA and that work had already been done to try to improve the quality of the water there, so our goal was to find out what else might need to be done,” said Corwin Drummond, lead investigator on the chapter research team. “To find out if it worked, if there’s more that needs to be done to improve it further, or, best-case scenario, if it’s perfectly fine, if it’s perfectly safe.”

Turkey Creek had recently been in the news as one of several waterways in the gulf coast area that was polluted. The students hoped they could determine what was in the water — they looked specifically for E. coli.

Their research into the EPA’s work in the area introduced them to Dr. Troy Pierce, chief scientist with the U.S. EPA Gulf of Mexico Program. Pierce met with the students, showed them water-testing equipment and talked about the overall testing process.

“I had no expectation at all that the EPA would provide us with the equipment and that their scientists would train our students,” said Dr. Patricia “Pat” West, advisor to the Omicron Alpha Chapter.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Armed with this equipment and knowledge, students began testing three main sites along Turkey Creek in the summer and continued it throughout the fall semester. Drummond, a computer engineering major, compiled the research into a large spreadsheet that allowed him to chart the data for a variety of variables.

“Most of the students who participated in this are not science majors, and they don’t intend to be. This didn’t change their minds,” West said. “But for the rest of their lives, I think they’ll have a really firm understanding of how scientific data is generated, and they’ll be able to ask good questions.”

The students learned that two of the three sites tested showed E. coli counts that were concerning. Armed with their research, they reached out to Dr. James Farmer, a microbiology instructor at MGCCC who has more than 20 years of experience sampling water with the United States Geological Survey. Farmer put them in touch with a colleague at Middle Tennessee State University who had recently developed a method for tracking sources of E. coli on a genetic level.

Based on DNA, students could actually tell whether a particular E. coli sample had come from a wild animal, a nearby farm or a local sewer system, Drummond said.

“One of my biggest personal learning experiences throughout the project was how in-depth we were able to get with the water-testing technology,” he said.

Drummond presented the findings to the Turkey Creek community leaders, who have now taken official measures to improve the waterway.

The extraordinary level of the chapter’s research earned students an invitation to meet with the deputy director of the EPA, Dr. Stanley Meiburg, in Washington, D.C. in early April, furthering the relationships the chapter formed as part of its project.

The chapter also presented it methodology and findings to middle school students in the Turkey Creek community, and it hosted an on-campus community forum. Chapter members will continue to test water samples through September 2016.

“I certainly think one of the things my students gained from this experience is the understanding that no matter what their major is or what their interest is or what drew them into participating in this, we’re all affected by the world immediately around us; and the more we understand about our environment, the more reasonable our decisions can be,” West said.

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