August 13, 2007

Hannah Fink ’09 Receives Research Fellowship from EPA

Grant provides biology major with financial support to continue environmental science research

Biology major Hannah Fink ’09 (Whitehall, Pa.) was recently awarded the Greater Research Opportunities Undergraduate Fellowship (GRO) from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The prestigious two-year fellowship provides substantial funding to allow undergraduate students to continue research in a specific area, environmental science in Fink’s case, and also supports a summer internship at an EPA lab anywhere in the country.

GRO recipients receive support for undergraduate research during their junior and senior years of up to $17,000 per year covering tuition and fees, a monthly stipend during the school year, and research expenses. They also receive up to $7,500 of internship support for a 12-week internship experience during the summer between their junior and senior years.

Fink is the latest in a list of recent Lafayette recipients of prestigious national and international scholarships and fellowships for undergraduate and post-graduate study. For information on applying for scholarships and fellowships, contact Julia A. Goldberg, assistant dean of studies, at (610) 330-5521.

Last year, Fink joined a multidisciplinary research project focusing on finding cost efficient methods of removing perchlorate contamination from groundwater. The project, which is supported by a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant, requires collaboration across numerous academic departments and is being led by Steven Mylon, assistant professor of chemistry; Javad Tavakoli, professor of chemical engineering; Arthur Kney, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Laurie Caslake, associate professor and acting head of biology.

NSF funding began June 1, 2006, and will extend the collective research, which has been ongoing for a number of years, until May 2009. Multiple students have worked with the professors on different aspects of the project.

“My research on perchlorate reduction helped me get the EPA fellowship, which will, in turn, allow me to continue my research. The grant also gives me a better opportunity to conduct an honors thesis of my choice my senior year,” Fink explains.

Perchlorate, according to Fink, is a harmful ion that, if consumed, causes thyroid dysfunction and has been linked to certain cancers. It is used in the manufacturing of propellants such as rocket fuel, munitions, and fireworks. Leakage of perchlorate residue seeps into the ground, causing the groundwater to become contaminated. The EPA has placed perchlorate on its Contaminant Candidate List, which means that it is a potential candidate for regulation.

“Perchlorate contamination in groundwater has become a nationwide problem with contamination found in at least 34 states,” Fink says. “Currently, ion exchange technology is employed to filter perchlorate from groundwater. However, once the filters become saturated with perchlorate this method is no longer environmentally or economically viable.”

The team of professors and students are using a combination method of ion exchange and microbial reduction to more efficiently and safely purge the perchlorate from the water.

Fink, along with fellow biology major Jim Callahan ’08 (Jamison, Pa.), are tackling the microbial component under Caslake’s supervision. The ion exchange component is being advised by Kney and Tavakoli. The students working with them this summer are chemical engineering majors Daniel Goldberg ’09 (Avon, Ct.) and Kate Merriam ’08 (Hillsborough, NJ.).

Fink previously worked with Mylon to identify which type of perchlorate-reducing bacteria would work best under various environmental conditions. Mylon is currently spending the summer with chemistry major Alex Goergen ’08 (Allegheny, N.Y.) learning methods for the synthesis of zero-valent iron nanoparticles for use in perchlorate reduction experiments at University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Other students who have been involved with the research include chemical engineering graduate Jessica Jenkins ’07; chemical engineering majors Korin Kohen ’08 (Istanbul, Turkey), Briana Hecht ’08 (Chestnut Hill, Mass.), and Carolyn Stolfi ’09 (Chatham, N.J.); and biology major Brian Kilmartin ’09 (Norristown, Pa.).

This summer, Fink and Callahan have been responsible for culturing bacteria known as Dechlorosoma suillum that is able to reduce perchlorate.

According to Fink, the removal of perchlorate with Dechlorosoma suillum requires an anaerobic, or oxygen-free, environment. She is growing the bacteria in the presence of oxygen reducers and the perchlorate ion inside of a nitrogen glove box to help maintain an anaerobic environment. At various points, she takes samples of the bacteria and perchlorate to measure the bacteria’s growth and then runs them through an Ion Chromatograph to check for a reduction in perchlorate.

She has also spent quite a bit of time testing various oxygen reducers to make sure she and her fellow researchers would have the required anaerobic conditions.

“I tested such reducers as Oxyrase, sodium sulfide, and sodium dithionite,” Fink says. “We found out that sodium sulfide and sodium dithionite create the needed anaerobic conditions if used together. I also spent a lot of time setting the nitrogen glove box to make sure that there was no residual oxygen within the system. In order to achieve this, I set up a solution of sodium dithionite in water and used a fish tank bubbler to pump air from the system into the solution to eat up any potential oxygen in the system.”

Fink believes that the most prominent things she has learned this summer are patience and perseverance.

“I’ve been working on this project for two summers now and I have just begun to see the desired results, which is really an encouraging sign,” she says. “I’ve also learned to think more abstractly about what and why potential problems occurred and how best to fix them. Over the course of this project, we’ve really struggled to create the correct anaerobic conditions necessary for the bacteria to be able to reduce the perchlorate and we’ve experimented with numerous methods. Through trial and error, we eventually created the conditions we need and I’ve realized that that’s really all you can do sometimes. You really need patience and determination to continue to try new things even when everything previously has led to frustration.”

Fink also believes that the skills she has acquired through this project, such as growing bacterial cultures in both plates and liquids, gram staining, and learning how to use and fix complicated laboratory machinery, will assist her in the future.

Though she is not yet certain of her exact focus, Fink says she anticipates studying some area of environmental science in graduate school. “I ultimately want to continue to do research after graduate school because I really enjoy working in a laboratory setting.”

She also says that this research and future internship through the EPA have caused her to reevaluate her future career paths.

“I originally came into Lafayette as a biochemistry major and my research with EXCEL has changed my focus,” Fink explains. “I’m now a biology major with a focus on environmental sciences. This internship and my future opportunities with the EPA fellowship have given me amazing opportunities to really focus in on what I want to do in the future and have given me valuable skills to accomplish that.”

Along with her studies, Fink is the goalkeeper for the varsity women’s soccer team and is involved with Lafayette Christian Fellowship, for which she has served on the worship band. In addition, she is a member of the Marquis Players and has acted in every spring musical since her freshman year.

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