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City Tech Students’ Water Quality Research Yields Surprising Results

Working with Hudson River water samples are, from left to right: Jodi Ann-Young, Karmen Yu, Jorge Paucar and Steven Lora.
Photo credit: Urmi Ghosh-Dastidar.

While their peers were going to beaches and lakes to get a respite from the summer heat, a group of City Tech students were going to the water, too – to the Gowanus Canal and the Hudson River – as part of an interdisciplinary summer project that allowed them to get hands-on experience conducting and analyzing research.

Under the direction of City Tech Professors Urmi Ghosh-Dastidar (mathematics) and Liana Tsenova (biological sciences), the nine students found that one of the Hudson River sites had surprisingly high levels of E. coli.

The project, “Bio-Math Mapping: Water Quality Analysis of the Hudson and Gowanus,” allowed the students, all but one of whom are majoring in applied mathematics at City Tech, the opportunity to combine mathematics with epidemiology, microbiology and environmental studies through a four-week investigation of water quality in nearby bodies of water. They were given a crash course in statistics and microbiology by Professors Ghosh-Dastidar and Tsenova.

The research project included one day of gathering water samples from six different sites along the Hudson River and the Gowanus Canal. Then, the project shifted indoors to a microbiology lab at City Tech where the students tested and analyzed the water samples for the total number of bacteria and coliforms (including E. coli) present to gauge the level of fecal contamination of the two waterways. In addition, antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB) were examined. They then performed statistical analyses on the data they obtained.

The students with Professors Ghosh-Dastidar (second from left) and Tsenova (third from left).

The students were aware that according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the water quality of the Gowanus Canal is currently extremely polluted and poses a serious threat to public health. In contrast, the water quality of Hudson River, a major recreation water source, is "generally acceptable.” However, the students found statistically significant variations of E. coli and ARB among the Hudson River sites. This is due to the varying levels of human and business activities along the shoreline.

“While at most of the Hudson River sites sampled, the water was within the allowed range for recreational purposes, water taken from the 79th Street site in Manhattan showed E. coli counts high enough to suggest that an advisory needs to be issued and further monitoring undertaken,” says Professor Ghosh-Dastidar. She and Professor Tsenova agree that further analysis of each site is recommended and they are hoping to receive funding to continue the project with their students.

The Gowanus Canal water samples, on the other hand, showed higher numbers of total bacteria and lower levels of E. coli, compared to the Hudson. “Students were able to see how the industrial waste and toxic material present in the canal have caused a decrease in oxygen levels, making it difficult for organisms requiring oxygen to live and reproduce,” Tsenova notes.

This water quality research project was funded by City Tech’s National Science Foundation (NSF) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) grant. Three of the nine students were supported through the CUNY Louis B. Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) grant.

Overseeing the NSF STEP grant is City Tech’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, Pamela Brown. Regarding the bio-mapping summer research project, she says, “This type of work enhances the intellectual vitality of the College and leads to innovations in the curriculum. There are also other tangible benefits that are harder to measure – the potentially transformative impact that the mentor has on a student’s confidence and determination to succeed; the sense of personal satisfaction the faculty member feels.”

This was the first research experience for City Tech sophomore Karmen Yu, who says it was eye-opening for many reasons. “The project exposed me to microbiology, a subject that I, as a math major, never would have studied otherwise and which I found very interesting,” she explains. “I was very surprised that the E. coli levels in the Hudson were so high. Also, I had never taken a statistics course, so I had to learn it in the course of doing the research. Now, I really understand how to use statistics to analyze research, and what I learned gave me a head start on the statistics class I’m taking this fall.”

Yu, a Crown Heights resident, plans to go on for a master’s in applied mathematics and then a doctorate in education so she can teach at the college level. “I’ve been a math tutor for several years and have a real passion for teaching others so they can do well in math.”

The Hudson-Gowanus project culminated with the students presenting their findings in Pittsburgh last month at MathFest 2010, an event organized by the Mathematical Association of America. Professors Tsenova and Ghosh-Dastidar plan to submit their comparative research findings to academic journals and present their results at City Tech’s research conference during this academic year.

9.28.10


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