Under the direction of Brian Mailloux, assistant professor of environmental science, two or three Barnard students each year participate in a multi-faceted Columbia study on the presence of arsenic and manganese in groundwater, a major public health issue both in the U.S. and abroad.
Prof. Mailloux is a co-investigator on one of the six studies in the Columbia Superfund Research Program. His study looks at the process by which arsenic leeches into the groundwater in Bangladesh. Though toxic, arsenic occurs naturally in sediment and is released into groundwater when microbes in the water respire carbon. By examining the sediment and groundwater, Prof. Mailloux’s team hopes to determine whether the carbon used by microbes in respiration and the subsequent release of arsenic into groundwater, occurs naturally or is created by human action.
An article on this research was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with two current students and recent alumna Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert ’08 listed as co-authors along with Prof. Mailloux and Professor Martin Stute. Trembath-Reichert and Silvern describe their work on the project, their travels to Bangladesh, and the importance of having this opportunity in their research careers and beyond.
Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert ’08 says her experience at Barnard inspired her to continue scientific study; she is working toward her PhD in geobiology at Cal Tech. Intending to major in international relations, she switched to environmental science after she began working with Mailloux. “There’s a lot to be said for getting into the field and seeing where your samples come from, and understanding the processes that are involved,” says Trembath-Reichert, the first student to go to Bangladesh with Mailloux. “Getting to work so closely with a professor has definitely benefitted me. I was in a small environment, but because we were part of Columbia, I had access to facilities and a range of technical capabilities.” Working so intensely on the same project for three years, and eventually co-authoring a paper has also aided her scientific career. “I graduated having worked with someone closely who could write a strong recommendation, and having done intensive research—it was really helpful.”
In spring 2013 Rachel Silvern ’14 traveled to Bangladesh to collect water and sediment samples: “It was an absolutely incredible experience, particularly because I had been working on the project for some time prior to this trip. Spending time at the different sites, and getting to bridge the gap between what we are doing in the lab and why this is an important area of research in Bangladesh was extremely meaningful.” Also, she says, “Working in a lab where Brian advised us directly and having so much freedom to take charge of the research project was unique for an undergraduate lab experience.”
Mailloux says he also benefits from research with undergraduates. “They bring a lot of energy to the project, as well as new ideas and new views and enthusiasm. They help you think of ways to tackle long-term research issues.”
Students examine how arsenic seeps into groundwater in Bangladesh.