Undergraduate research broadens horizons – Reina Diaz (ETM)

We spent many hours growing fungal cultures to produce manganese oxides.
We spent many hours growing fungal cultures to produce manganese oxides.

So many times when someone asks, “So what can you do with an Environmental Technology degree?” I find myself saying “Well, lots of things. I’ve learned a little bit about soil quality, water quality, air quality; I guess I’m not entirely sure.” After the work I have done in Duckworth’s lab, I have a better idea of what my education has prepared me for.

I was very fortunate this summer to work with Dr. Owen Duckworth of the Soil Science Department at NC State. What I found most valuable about this type of work was the ability to apply much of the theory we have learned in our coursework to experimentation with the intention of solving real life scientific problems.

The work I was doing was a small piece of a larger body of work in which Dr. Duckworth had received a grant from the NSF. I am a research assistant exploring soil biogeochemistry of manganese oxides, specifically those that are naturally produced by fungal species in the soil. Ideally, these manganese oxides can be used in water treatment facilities to remove organic contaminants as well as metal contaminants from drinking water reservoirs.

I learned proper sterility techniques to grow the fungal cultures responsible for producing our manganese oxides. I had the opportunity to write a proposal for my intended scientific research as well as implement my own unique experimental design. Both of these skills are very valuable. If in the future I decide to pursue a career in research, I need to communicate my hypothesis and intended procedure effectively to secure the appropriate funding for these research projects. I had to determine which filters were most appropriate, the correct timing of collecting samples, and which size beaker was best to yield the largest mass of biogenic manganese oxides. Aside from growing the fungal cultures, establishing my experimental design was the most tedious process of the experiment.

Remember all those expensive pieces of equipment we learned about in Environmental Monitoring and Analysis, Principles of Toxicology, and the countless chemistry classes we’ve taken? I not only learned what some of these looked like, but I also used them to analyze my samples. I used a UV‐spectrometer in an anaerobic chamber to measure changes of concentration of organic contaminants over time. I used an atomic absorption (AA) machine to measure the change in manganese in solution over time. To use this equipment, I had to acidify my samples with a 1% acetic acid solution that I learned how to make. The AA took my samples, set them on fire, and measured the concentration of manganese in each of my samples. I also learned how to wash dishes, lots and lots of dishes!

Over the course of the summer and all of my data, I became MUCH more familiar with Excel. I used the data I collected from running these experiments to make graphs to communicate how the concentrations of organic contaminants and aqueous manganese change over time: in a redox reaction, the manganese oxides broke down the organic contaminants in solution.

Because NC State’s Office of Undergraduate Research funded part of my project, I had the opportunity to share my results at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Talley Student Center this past August. I organized my objectives, methods, results, and future research goals on a scientific poster. During my poster session, I spoke with many students and faculty members about the project I had worked on, the results I had received, as well as my analysis of those results. Because the symposium was designed for multiple disciplines at NC State, I polished my ability to describe my research to those with all types of educational backgrounds. This skill is useful when discussing your accomplishments to those who are not in the scientific community (like my parents).

Many of the undergraduate research students working at NC State were from all over the country and thus concluded their research at the end of the summer, but my hard work and student status gave me the opportunity to continue my work with Dr. Duckworth and the Soil Science Department during the fall semester. I have been able to repeat my summer experiments with different types of manganese oxides to compare the reactivity of each oxide. This will help us understand which oxides would be most efficient to use in a water treatment facilities.

Furthermore, Dr. Duckworth’s research grant funded my travel expenses and registration fee for me to present my research at the Soil Science Society of America Conference in Minneapolis, MN. At this conference, I again presented a scientific poster to students and faculty, but additionally there were hundreds, if not thousands of research professionals from all over the world. This experience and exposure is enormous for the future of my career. I met some of the most brilliant professionals in the world of soil science and for that I am grateful that Dr. Duckworth encouraged me to partake in the conference.

I presented my research to students and faculty at the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Tally Student Center.
I presented my research to students and faculty at the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Tally Student Center.

Frankly, an internship as a graduation requirement was somewhat daunting when I was originally in the application stage. But I am very appreciative that I have had this experience. I now have knowledge of practices, protocols, systems, and technologies that I had not been exposed to in the past. I have professional connections and references who can speak to my character and work ethic in the scientific community, and I now know that I enjoy research and graduate school is in my future. Maybe in soil science? I will always reminisce on this experience as a wonderful growing opportunity and I highly recommend to anyone interested in research to get involved as a research assistant during their undergraduate career.