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Something in the Water

An undergraduate researcher explores the confluence between water science and human health
By Dave Shelles

Volume 13, Number 1 | Fall 2011

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Something in the Water After class, one might expect to find aspiring doctor Sarah Gregory (BS '11) shadowing a physician or studying for the MCAT. Instead, the Gillette, Wyo., native spent her senior year wading through Wyoming's pristine streams as she researched the complex interplay between dissolved organic carbons (DOCs), bacteria, and light.

DOCs, most of which are produced by the decay of plant and animal matter, play an important role in the health of Wyoming's rivers. Under ideal conditions, both sunlight and microbes help break DOCs into usable nutrients.

Gregory, who's been working on the project since summer 2010, says she earned a world of experience while up to her knees in chilly water. "I got to spend time in the lab and develop relationships with doctoral students and faculty at the university, which you can't quite get from extracurriculars or in classroom time," she says.

Undergraduate research may seem like an unusual choice for a physiology and molecular biology major with her sights set on medical school. But Gregory was determined to explore the many options available to her. "I wanted to spend some time in the field doing benchtop research to make sure that wasn't a direction I wanted to pursue," she explains. "I wasn't planning on doing my PhD, but I wanted to make sure."

In spring 2010, she was accepted into the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a competitive program for promising math, science, and engineering students. Participants gain valuable research experience while assisting with real-life studies at universities around the country.

Gregory was assigned to analyze the biogeochemistry of pristine Western rivers under the supervision of Robert Hall, UW associate professor of zoology and physiology. The National Science Foundation had awarded Hall a three-year grant to study aquatic nutrient cycling in 2009.

Though Gregory, an honors student, is no stranger to hard work, research proved a character-building experience. "You encounter problems in the lab," she says. "Machines don't work. Your experiment doesn't work. It's definitely an experience in persistence."

True to form, she threw herself headlong into the project—and quickly deduced that a single summer wasn't going to satisfy her curiosity. "Research is never ending," she says. "For most people, the answer to one question just brings about more questions."

After the REU summer program ended, Gregory continued her DOC work as an independent study. To fund the project, she secured two Wyoming National Science Foundation EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) Undergraduate Fellowships, awards that provide research support to promising student projects. She also acquired the Haub Student Research and Creative Activities Grant from the university.

During her final year at UW, Gregory received departmental support to attend the annual conference of the North American Benthological Society, where she mingled with world-class water researchers and presented a poster on her project. But the highlight for her was watching water experts from a variety of backgrounds discuss public health problems and solutions. "I wasn't aware there would be an entire day of talks devoted to human health impacts," she says.

While Gregory has long been aware of the intersection between water science and medicine, she says the conference drove home the importance of working across disciplines to address public health problems. For example, in some areas, significant amounts of prescription drugs such as antibiotics and oral contraceptives have been found in tap water. "I don't know if that's being brought to physicians' attention," she says.

In July, Gregory received the results of some water samples she'd sent to the lab for analysis—in the form of a 1,500-column spreadsheet. At this point, the recent graduate isn't sure whether she'll continue as an active researcher on her own project, or whether she'll turn it over to another student. "If we do go ahead and publish, I'll stay on as an author and help in the write up," she says.

At present, Gregory's taking some time off to relax and consider her career options. But even if she heads off to medical school, she doesn't expect to leave water science behind. "I hope as an MD to perhaps return to these water conferences," she says. "Interdisciplinary discussion needs to keep happening."

 

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