I am currently working with Cindy Heil, a senior research scientist at Bigelow, on my independent research project. Cindy’s work primarily focuses on harmful algal blooms, a topic I am also deeply interested in. A harmful algal bloom is the rapid growth of an algal or cyanobacterial population that can have negative effects on people and the ecosystem. One way these blooms can be harmful is by producing toxins. Cindy and I are currently working on a project examining the transmission of these toxins into the air. We are culturing Microcystis, a freshwater cyanobacterial species, as well as gathering samples from an algal bloom on Sabattus Lake. By bubbling oxygen into these cultures, we will see if their toxins end up leaving the water and getting into the air.
Our results could have human health implications. Through the literature search I have done in preparation for this project, I have learned a lot about toxins that come from harmful algal blooms. One of these toxins that I will be testing for in my research is called BMAA. This toxin is hypothesized to be a cause of neurological disorders, such as ALS, in humans. ALS is a cause close to my heart and is part of what makes this research project so interesting to me.
Over the weekend, I went to Augusta and gathered some water samples from the Kennebec River. We are going to extract compounds from these samples called humic acids. We think that humic acids might prevent toxins from aerosolizing. While gathering these samples, I met some curious locals that were asking me about my research. It was such a valuable experience for me because it was the first time I had to explain my research to someone who may not have as strong of a science background as my fellow classmates at Bigelow. I conversed with one man for a while about some environmental issues the Kennebec is facing. He described how he witnessed firsthand fish populations declining in the river over the years. Our conversation made me realize how much I enjoy working on environmental issues. Individuals everywhere are impacted in various ways and I love hearing their stories.
Working in Cindy’s lab has been interesting so far. We jumped right into our project and already have plenty to do. We started by listing the chemicals we needed to order to make a growth media for our algal culture. One thing that really surprised me was how much chemicals cost. We ended up having to purchase the media, which cost $200. One of my biggest concerns currently is that what I want to do will cost more money than we have budgeted for the project. I never anticipated that money could be a limiting factor in my research project. It made me respect all of the non-scientific work, like budgeting, that comes with being a scientist.
Olivia Antczak is a Colby College student in Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science’s semester-in-residence program. This intensive research experience is focused on ocean science within a changing global climate.