Hannah Fink Studies Method of Removing Contaminant from Water Supply
Feb. 6, 2007
EASTON, Pa. - (www.lafayette.edu) - Lafayette sophomore Hannah Fink wants to use her knowledge of biology and chemistry to research solutions to environmental problems.
She is getting a head start on her goal by working on an ongoing multidisciplinary project supported by a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant. A biochemistry major, Fink is studying cost-effective methods of removing the harmful ion perchlorate from groundwater and using anaerobic bacteria to break the ion down into chlorine ions that are safe for disposal.
Fink is a goalkeeper on the women's soccer team at Lafayette. The Whitehall, Pa native spent 30 minutes between the pipes for the Leopards this past season, sharing a shutout with teammate Mary Kate Erdman in Lafayette's 5-0 win over St. Peter's on Sept. 22.
Multiple students are conducting research related to the grant. Funding began June 1 and will extend the collective research, which has been ongoing for a number of years, until May 2009.
The project requires collaboration across numerous academic departments and is being led by Javad Tavakoli, professor and head of chemical engineering; Arthur Kney, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Steven Mylon, assistant professor of chemistry; and Laurie Caslake, assistant professor of biology.
Fink is collaborating with Mylon through Lafayette's distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.
"This research has large 'real world' benefits because when we succeed in determining a cost effective method to reduce the perchlorate, we will be able to test it in a real environment," Fink explains. "We will be able to clean up contaminated sites and prevent harmful health concerns all around the country."
Typically used as an oxidation accelerator in munitions, rocket fuel, and fireworks, perchlorate moves easily through groundwater and has been linked to certain cancers. Perchlorate contamination has been detected in the water supplies of at least 34 states and the Environmental Protection Agency has placed it on the contaminant candidate list. Perchlorate consumption limits the proper functioning of the thyroid gland by decreasing the production of the thyroid hormone and is especially dangerous for pregnant women as it inhibits the developmental growth of the fetus.
The current system of removing perchlorate from water uses an expensive ion exchange resin, which cannot be reused, and hazardous waste results from the chemical accumulating on the resin. A team of Lafayette faculty and students have been working on a process that would destroy the chemical after it has been removed through the use of bacteria, providing an affordable way for small communities to clean contaminated water because the resin can be reused and does not produce hazardous waste.
Fink is studying several types of perchlorate-reducing bacteria to see how well they perform under various environmental conditions. Her responsibilities include growing the bacteria, placing them in anaerobic conditions, and testing the bacteria to determine their ability and efficiency in reducing perchlorate at various concentrations.
"This subject is incredibly interesting because the research I'm doing uses both fields that I'm interested in - biology and chemistry," Fink says. "I'm excited to be a part of this project because the experiment has a real purpose and our results can be immensely beneficial to society and the environment."
Mylon believes Fink has what it takes to participate in such high caliber research.
"She was among the top students, but being the top student doesn't get you asked to be part of a research team," he says. "She seemed like the kind of person who takes pride in what she does. She can work by herself, think by herself, and doesn't let setbacks get her down."
According to Mylon, the supportive environment Lafayette offers for undergraduate research gives students a distinct advantage over those at other colleges and universities.
"EXCEL sets Lafayette apart from many schools like it," Mylon says. "I tell prospective students this all time; you come to a place like Lafayette for these opportunities. Taking advantage of collaborating with faculty and peers on important research projects as a sophomore will set our students apart from their counterparts at other institutions."
Fink also believes her EXCEL research will continue to pay off long after she leaves Lafayette.
"The EXCEL program is an amazing opportunity for students here at Lafayette," Fink says. "I don't know of any other college or university that I would be able to do such important research as early as freshman year. I'm able to build a great working relationship with many professors on campus. Also, I am learning laboratory techniques and experiences that will be invaluable when searching for a future job."
Fink is also a member of Lafayette Christian Fellowship and Marquis Players, an acting troupe that performs a play each spring to benefit charity. She is a graduate of Whitehall High School.
As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty students were accepted to present their research at last year's conference. Lafayette is spotlighted as a national leader in undergraduate research in U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges 2005.
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