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Student Research on Impacts of Pollution and Climate Change

Environmental Science students are working this summer to better understand forces harming ecosystems

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From analyzing microplastics in our waterways to researching methane emissions in trees, American University’s Environmental Science graduate and undergraduate students are hard at work this summer, conducting research that has critical implications for better understanding how pollution and climate change are affecting our planet.

AU’s Environmental Science program encourages students to become involved in faculty research projects from the moment students first step foot in the classroom, says Professor Steve MacAvoy. “Starting in our introductory classes, faculty share their research when it overlaps with course content, and this can generate student interest in the discovery and problem-solving nature of research in the environmental sciences. The hypothesis testing, analysis, and troubleshooting involved in research discoveries provide student experiences that can change the way they think about confronting challenges regardless of their career path.”  

Read on for just a few examples of the exciting research that our students are conducting this summer. 

Olivia VentrescaBS public health and environmental science ’24

Olivia VentrescaOlivia Ventresca is assisting with Professor and Department Chair Steve MacAvoy’s Anacostia and Potomac Rivers research, testing the toxicity of organic contaminants in urban and suburban areas of both rivers. This includes identifying isolated fatty acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and alkanes from collected soil sediment samples. Her work is largely focused on identifying emerging contaminants, but she has also begun some additional work in the Anacostia, analyzing fish tissue for the presence of BPA (bisphenol A), an industrial chemical that is found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, and may have adverse health effects.

“My work in identifying emerging contaminants is important for not only the health and well-being of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, but also the local communities that regularly use the watershed,” Olivia says. “I have been inspired to continue forward with research in environmental health sciences in my future graduate program because of this amazing experience I have had in Dr. MacAvoy’s lab.” 

Kylie BillBS environmental science, BA studio art ’25

Kylie BillThis summer, Kylie Bill is working as a National Science Foundation REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) student at the University of Virginia's Blandy Experimental Farm. She is examining the effects of salt on Carolina Horse Nettle (Solanum Carolinense), a perennial herbaceous plant that is native to the southeastern United States.

Specifically, Kylie is looking at how the addition of salt treatments affects the foraging behavior of pollinators, primarily bumble bees. Plants are sodium poor, she explains, so pollinators crave salt, and the presence of salt can increase their attraction to plants.

“A previous study was conducted that showed how nectar in Milkweed can uptake sodium, and the presence of sodium in nectar increases pollinator visitation. By using my study system, I can observe if pollen also takes up sodium. This experiment will allow us to better understand how road salt and other salt pollution may create ecological traps in developed areas for pollinators.” 

Jonathan CraigMS environmental science ’24

Jonathan Craig This summer, Jonathan Craig is doing research at the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, providing data on microplastics, an emerging pollutant of concern that may be playing a role in the health of Jug Bay wetland ecosystem.

Jonathan is collecting water samples and analyzing them for the presence of microplastics to provide the sanctuary with baseline information. He is also looking at water quality parameters and analyzing sediment samples for the presence of PAHs (a type of organic pollutant). Alongside all of this, he is also working on his thesis research with Dr. Barbara Balestra, which focuses on microplastics in sediment samples from the Anacostia River watershed.

“This internship is a rewarding opportunity that allows me to gain valuable fieldwork experience and lab experience to help me hone my skills as a scientist and researcher,” he says. “My thesis research helps provide information on microplastic pollution in the Anacostia River and could be a basis for determining the health of the river in the future.” 

Glory IorliamMS environmental science ’24

Glory IorliamThis summer, Graduate Merit Award Winner Glory Iorliam is working with Professor Karen Knee at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the world’s largest museum and research complex. They are measuring radon gas as a natural tracer for methane emissions from trees in wetland and upland ecosystems. Scientists know that methane is emitted from trees. But there are many mysteries around it: its source, how it moves, and whether it originates from soil and groundwater, or is produced from the heartwood of the trees. 

Glory, who is from Nigeria, points out that this research conducted in the United States will give her hands-on research experience and increase her understanding of greenhouse gases while helping her discover sustainable solutions to global environmental challenges like climate change. 

“It is no longer news that the climate is changing and changing fast, says Glory. “Lowering methane emissions, an important greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in a 20-year time period, offers the fastest chance to address climate change, an opportunity we can grab only if we understand the mechanisms behind its emissions.”