KOKOMO, Ind. — On a humid Monday morning, Sara Musselman straps on hip waders over her jeans and sneakers, pushes through dense grass and weeds, and picks her way down the side of a ditch, stepping into the shallow water.
She uncaps a sterile liter bottle and submerges it, filling it with water before twisting the lid back on. Tucking it under one arm, she drops a probe in the water, watching a small hand-held device for the pH level in the water.
Having completed her tasks at this site, just north of Kokomo, she climbs back out, ready to repeat 11 more times before noon.
Every Monday this summer, Musselman and fellow Indiana University Kokomo student Derek Fields wade into creeks and streams at 12 Howard County sites, collecting water samples, which they test back in the Hunt Hall Labs.
“This is a way to track the source of contamination in the water,” said Musselman, a biology major. “By determining the source, we can focus on that one source, rather than trying to guess the source.”
The two students are researching with Christian Chauret, dean of the School of Sciences, and collaborating with the Howard County Stormwater District to develop a procedure to detect the source of human fecal contamination in watersheds.
“It is all about improving water quality of the streams in the Wildcat watershed, and ecosystem health,” said Chauret. “If sources of contamination can be identified then potential problems can be rectified.”
He said while it is fairly easy to identify fecal contamination in water, it’s hard to identify if the source is human, or some other animal, such as livestock or wild animals. Howard County stormwater officials are especially interested in detecting human sources of contamination.
“New methods have been developed to identify the source, and have been improved in the last 10 years,” Chauret said. “We are adapting some of these methods to our lab and to what we can do here.”
Once the students return to the lab, they begin a lengthy process to test the water.
Fields filters the water, incubates samples, and gets plate counts, looking for indicators of E. Coli in the samples, which would indicate the presence of some kind of waste, human or animal.
Musselman, from Denver, performs a DNA extraction, looking for DNA markers for bacteriods, which tells her if there is human waste in the water.
She said the experience will benefit her when she applies to dental school.
“They want to know you’ve had lab experience,” she said. “Dental schools like to see that you’ve been involved. They want to know you’ve had hands-on experience in a lab. I like that this is also a project that has an impact on the community.”
She’s enjoyed having some freedom to figure out the best process to accomplish her task.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” she said. “Dr. Chauret helps guide you, but there are some things you just have to work out. “
A biochemistry major, Fields plans to go to graduate school, leading to a career as a research scientist. Working on this project allows him to confirm that is what he wants to do professionally.
“It gives me an understanding of what I like, and if this is the field for me, “said the Gas City resident. “This doesn’t feel like work. There are times it might be repetitive and boring, it all leads to the end result. My favorite part is getting the results, positive or negative.”
He has found it interesting to see how the readings change each week, particularly with the heavy rains this summer. The first week they sampled, only one site had contamination. By the end of the first month, five of the 12 sites were contaminated.
Musselman and Fields plan to present their research at regional conferences, and Chauret plans to submit an article for publication with their data.
“They are benefitting by gaining hands on research experience, which looks great on résumés,” he said. “These are the kinds of experiences that stand out on a graduate or professional school application.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.