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SOAR Spotlight: Laura McBride '16

Determination of Heavy Metal Contamination in Forb Plants at the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge

Major/Minor: Chemistry major, Environmental Science minor
Hometown: Eagleville PA
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Diane Husic

Briefly describe your project.

My project involves fieldwork and lab work. I collect my forb plant samples at the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge, which is across the river from Palmerton, PA. The refuge is located on 750 acres of the largest Superfund Site east of the Mississippi. I collect the plants and bring them back to the lab where I weigh, dry, reweigh, digest, and then analyze them for zinc contamination. The Superfund Site contains soil that was contaminated by the New Jersey Zinc Company zinc smelters. After almost 100 years of operation, the plants were closed down in 1980 and declared a Superfund Site by the EPA. The importance of my project is to analyze if the plants located at the refuge are up taking the metals present in the soil. If they are, then the metals can be reintroduced into the ecosystem and cause negative effects on vegetation, insects, birds, mammals, and other animals.

Why did you decide to turn your idea into a SOAR project?

Both Dr. Husic and I created the project. She has done a project similar to this one for SOAR a few years ago, but it focused on birch trees. I decided to focus on the forb plants, because no one has studied them yet and was interested to see if they were sequestering metals.

How did your faculty advisor guide you through your research?

Dr. Husic has been a great resource for this project because she has been monitoring the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge ecosystem for a long time. Her insight into what the landscape looked like before restoration and remediation to seeing it afterwards illustrated how important this project is. Having Dr. Husic guide me through the collection and analysis process was invaluable and showed me different instruments that can be used for research.

What was your biggest obstacle?

The biggest obstacle so far has been the instruments needed for zinc analysis. It took many weeks to get the instruments up and running, and when we finally did the microwave digestor broke! This caused a delay in starting the analysis, but showed what can happen during research. Another obstacle to fieldwork is the weather. Several times, we had to reschedule to go out in the field to collect samples because it was raining.

What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

My biggest takeaway from doing SOAR is that I like doing research and will consider it for a career. I like spending time in the field collecting plants, and I did not mind being in the lab and preparing my samples. Having your own project to do is different from doing lab work for a course and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What was the result of your project? Was it congruent with your hypothesis?

Because of the microwave digestor malfunctioning and the limited amount of time for SOAR, I was not able to analyze my samples for zinc contamination. Going into the project, I did not think I would find much diversity in forb plants at the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge (LGWR). It is a newly restored ecosystem that is still at risk for failure of vegetation growing. Surprisingly, I found 34 diverse species of forbs scattered through the LGWR and I was not expecting this

Will you expand on your research after this summer is over? If so, where would you like to see it go?

My research is going to continue into the 2015-2016 academic year as an honors project. I will digest the rest of my samples in the microwave digestor and use the atomic absorption spectrometer to determine how much zinc is present in each forb plant. A “good” result for my project would be that none of the forbs are sequestering zinc because this shows that the zinc is staying in the contaminated soil and is not reentering the ecosystem and increasing the amount for bioavailability. What I expect to see is that some forbs will up take more metals than others will. A couple of the plants I am analyzing are hyperaccumulators, so they naturally uptake large amounts of heavy metals. I hope that I can determine which forb plants take up the most metals so the managers of the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge can create management plans to reduce the number of these particular plants for the benefit of the entire ecosystem.