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Miles Dillard: DEQ Step Intern Experience

Have you ever wanted to take part in environmental research that will help new environmental standards and initiatives become reality? If so then you will be interested in the internship opportunities that the NCDEQ offers to college students. The mission of the NCDEQ is “providing science based environmental stewardship for the health and prosperity of all North Carolinians” (NCDEQ,2022).  Within the NCDEQ there are many different divisions that welcome all different types of expertise. From air quality, Coastal Management, Energy, Mineral, Land resources, all the way to water infrastructure there is a place for everyone within the NCDEQs 10 different divisions.

I was fortunate enough to be able to intern with the NCDEQ through their STEP program. According to the NCDEQ the “Student Training Experience Program (STEP) initiative is committed to seeking talented and motivated students to apply for opportunities within DEQ. Students will gain practical, hands-on experience and learn more about DEQ’s role in protecting the environment through paid summer work offered during the summer” (NCDEQ,2022).  Not only that but the STEP program offered a chance to network with professionals in my field, develop skills I previously did not have as well as build on previous skills that I had learned in college and apply them to real world problems.

During my time at the NCDEQ I worked under my supervisor, Dr. Frannie Nilsen who has a PhD in Environmental Toxicology. I worked under Dr.Nilsen during my time there focusing on PFAS and more specifically looking at PFAS in fish and water samples from the Cape Fear River. PFAS stands for Per-and Polyfluorinated substances and are a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that can resist heat, oil, stains, etc.. This chemical is known as a forever chemical because they do not break down in the environment and have been linked to harmful health effects in both humans and animals. These harmful effects that PFAS has been linked to is cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.

After researching and learning about PFAS and what the DEQ was currently doing, I was put to work in the PFAS initiative. As stated earlier me and my supervisor were looking at PFAS in fish and water in the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. In our study we were specifically looking at 10 different locations at different locations within the river. Within each of these 10 locations we were sampling at least 5 different fish species that were regularly consumed by the community. These fish species ranged from catfish, sunfish, and bluegills for example. Since PFAS is harmful in human and animal digestion we focused on the fish that were commonly consumed in order to test the PFAS levels in each of them. As one could imagine this would require a lot of time and effort in order to find all these fish at each of the different locations along the river, due to this the NCDEQ worked alongside the NCWRC which is the North Carolina wildlife resource commission in order to accomplish this. I was given the opportunity to go out with the wildlife reserve agency and a game warden on a boat and partake in electrofishing which is the method in which the fish were collected. This was something very new to me as I have never gone electrofishing or gone on a boat on the cape fear river, so this was a great experience.

During the fish collection days in which the WCRC collected the fish either one of the PFAS group members or I would drive down to their office in Wilmington to collect the fish samples. Once the fish is collected, they are then taken to the NCDEQ water sciences laboratory for sampling and processing. For fish processing, the fish was first washed off in regular water then again in DI water. From there the fish was then weighed and measured (total length and fork length ), and then a filet of tissue / muscle was cut from the fish. The sample was then bagged and put into a freezer for later homogenizing. Water samples were put into 50mL sample tubes and put in the freezer as well. From here the fish was then homogenized which is the process of blending up the filet samples and putting them into tubes to be shipped off to another lab for PFAS testing alongside the water samples. I then took all the recorded data and what we did and put it into the excel file in order to have a record of everything and have it set up to show what else needed to be tested.

Alongside doing the fish PFAS collection, I worked on ARCGIS mapping to map data as well as create a world map of all the prevalent PFAS data being researched and the levels that were found as well as testing location. This map will be used in the research paper that will be published by Dr.Nilsen and the NCDEQ.

Miles working in the lab where we were processing the fish and water samples to prepare them for the PFAS testing. In the lab we cut up, sample, bag and label everything that will be later processed. After lab work, he would upload all of the data we got into an excel file.

Overall, I have learned a ton of real-world experience and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the environmental field of work. This experience has helped show me what I do and don’t like as well as shape what I want to do in my career. So far, I have realized that I actually really like the PFAS work and would like to continue this alongside my main focus of renewable energy. I am currently still working with the DEQ on the PFAS project and am grateful for the opportunity and ability to work with great people and an even greater organization.