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From The Classroom To The Laboratory: One NHS Grad Studies Groundwater Contamination



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From The Classroom To The Laboratory:

One NHS Grad Studies Groundwater Contamination

By Eliza Hallabeck

Maricate Conlon realized her passion for environmental science when she was a student at Newtown High School. Now as she is entering her sophomore year as a student at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn., Maricate is working as an Excel Scholar to discover new ways to reduce contamination in ground water.

In June, she spent a week and a half at the University of California, Berkeley, studying with graduate students, and learning techniques that she has now brought back to Lafayette College. Maricate is using this information to further Lafayette’s interdisciplinary project to develop a cost-effective, hybrid method of removing the contaminant perchlorate from groundwater.

“It’s definitely something that not a lot of sophomores get offered,” said Maricate during a phone interview. “It was really a great opportunity.”

Maricate said she did not realize that she liked science until she was a sophomore in Newtown High School. She said her teacher Frank Leblanca, who now teaches at another school, showed her how much she really enjoys science.

As an Excel Scholar, Maricate is spending her summer at Lafayette working under one of her professors at school. Excel Scholars work with faculty, engage in research, develop professional skills, enhance learning opportunities, and experience intellectual challenges, according to Lafayette College.

“I’m a geology major so far,” said Maricate. She said one thing she learned while taking classes at Lafayette that has really intrigued her is coastal processes. She said how people interact with the coastline and the effects that has on the coastline can alter the way it looks.

“I’m very interested in environmental science,” she said. “Especially the research of water, because it is now so limited.”

Maricate said the amount of research that has been done in the field is quite extensive, and there are still discoveries to be made. Pollution is causing ground water to become affected, and drinking it is not always safe. Processes that control the amount of contamination are needed before people can drink water.

“Something as basic as the human need for clean water to drink is in question right now,” said Maricate.

All the professors in the chemistry program at Lafayette College have one to two undergraduate students working for them this summer. All Excel Researchers get paid for their work.

At the University of California, Berkeley, Maricate said she spent her week studying with John Coates, an associate professor of microbiology at the university who specializes in anaerobic bacteria. Maricate said Dr Coates believes that biodegradation is the best way to reverse environmental contamination, and his laboratory currently focuses on perchlorate, hydrocarbon degradation, and benzene oxidation.

“Everyone who worked in the lab was very welcoming and excited to share their knowledge and discoveries with me,” said Maricate.

She said she worked hands-on with the graduate students in Dr Coates’ lab, and she observed and re-created the procedures to grow three strains of perchlorate-reducing bacteria. The bacteria she was working on included the most recent isolate from Dr Coates’ laboratory, Dechlorospirillum strain VDY, she wrote in a report for her research.

“I have brought these cultures and the knowledge of the processes back to Lafayette in the hopes of furthering our perchlorate reduction process,” she said.

In the write-up of her time spent at Berkeley, Maricate explained, “When we link our developments at Lafayette with their work, we have a chance of creating a very interesting remediation method. The two institutions will be working together to combine Lafayette’s ion exchange methods with the Coates lab’s innovative enzymatic degradation process.”

She said that like a regular job, because she gets paid, she has to work nights on occasion and she has to come in during the morning sometimes.

“She loved the lab, and she loved Berkeley,” said Maricate’s mother, Joan Conlon.

Ms Conlon said her daughter has always been a straight-A student, but it was not until she was in high school that she really saw Maricate appreciate environmental science.

“It was one of those things,” said Ms Conlon, “where she didn’t have direction, and then she did. We were very happy to see her do that.”

Spending the summer at Lafayette has made Maricate miss Newtown, Marocate said, but she added Lafayette is a great school with many chances for students to accomplish goals.

“Since it is a smaller school, there are more opportunities for excel students,” she said.

Maricate is also a swimmer for the Lafayette Women’s Varsity swim team, she is involved in the Student Movement Against Cancer executive board, and she coaches Special Olympics athletes through a program called Warren ARC.

So far her studies have left her with open-ended prospects for her future, Maricate said, because she could be studying something entirely new next summer. She suspects she may continue to study environmental science. 

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