UPDATES: November 2012

UPDATES is a monthly email newsletter on stormwater management, assessment (including monitoring), and maintenance research at St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and the University of Minnesota.

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My High School Internship at the University of Minnesota

November 2012 (volume 7 - issue 10)

Contributed by Ugonna Ojiaku, High School Research Assistant, St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, University of Minnesota (Principal Investigator: John S. Gulliver)

Ugonna Ojiaku is a bright and conscientious high school student that worked with our research crew last summer. In this month's UPDATES newsletter she describes her experience.

My name is Ugonna Ojiaku. I am currently a senior at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. During my junior year, I worked at the University of Minnesota’s Saint Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL) through an elite mentorship program called Honors Mentor Connection. In my mentorship, I worked closely with SAFL researchers Anne Haws and Andy Erickson, under the supervision of Professor John Gulliver.

When I began working at SAFL, I knew very little about environmental engineering, but I had an interest in the field and I wanted to explore it. I quickly learned a lot about stormwater pollution from research articles, such as how stormwater is polluted by heavy metals on our roads, litter from our streets, and fertilizers from our grass. I learned how polluted stormwater flows into our lakes and rivers and contaminates them. I also learned about the risks and harms of having stormwater pollution, which include: increased algae in our lakes due to excessive nutrients, low oxygen areas in our waters due to decomposition of organic material, and illnesses like the Blue Baby Syndrome which is caused by nitrate contamination. Learning all of this helped me understand why it is important for research like this to reduce the pollution in stormwater.

I acquired many skills performing experiments for the research. I learned how to titrate solutions, perform chemical analysis of phosphorus, and wet sieve sediments, among others. I also learned proper procedures for cleaning glassware to prevent contamination and mixing synthetic stormwater by dissolving pollutants into pure water at concentrations similar to naturally polluted stormwater. After preparing the synthetic stormwater, we added various materials called sorbents to measure whether these materials could remove the pollutants. The sorbent we focused on most was iron filings because research shows it can capture dissolved pollutants. Then, the stormwater was mixed for 72 hours, samples were collected, and the pollutant concentration was measured. I learned how to analyze the data from the experiments using spreadsheet software like Excel. From this process we determined how much pollution could be removed by some sorbents, which we can use to design new stormwater treatment practices for the future.

Figure 1: Field crew measuring saturated hydraulic conductivity with MPD infiltrometers in an urban swale. (From left: Anthony Vecchi, John Gulliver, Ugonna Ojiaku, Brad Weiss)

Through the stormwater pollution research, I grew to be more organized, cautious, and insightful in a laboratory environment. I also had the opportunity to assist with field research in Madison, Wisconsin. In Madison, I performed infiltration research by measuring swale infiltration rates using Modified Philip Dunne Permeameters. Through this field work, I became more efficient and accurate in recording measurements. It also opened my eyes to different kinds of research people do outside of the laboratory.

Figure 2: Field crew measuring saturated hydraulic conductivity with MPD infiltrometers in an urban swale. (From left: Brad Weiss, Ugonna Ojiaku, Anthony Vecchi)

By the end of the year, I was able to give many presentations of the projects, including a poster presentation at the Honors Mentor Connection Scholar’s Forum. I am proud of my work and I enjoyed sharing it with others. Through this experience, my passion for the environment really grew, and I have new appreciation for the research people do to improve our environment. I am very thankful for having the opportunity to learn more about environmental engineering and experience field work first hand. I plan to go to a university and learn more in hopes of becoming an environmental engineer one day.

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