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Oct. 31, 2018
By Tara Garcia, communication assistant
A Northwest Missouri State University faculty member’s geologic research of harmful algal blooms at Lake Erie culminated during the summer and continued to provide students with valuable profession-based learning experience.
Dr. Lorita Mihindukulasooriya, an assistant professor of geology, returned to the Old Woman Creek (OWC) National Estuarine Research Reserve for the third consecutive summer in July to collect water samples and water quality data to study the status of reappearing algal blooms. Her record will be the longest continuous record from the OWC estuary.
“Lake Erie provides drinking water to 11 million people,” Mihindukulasooriya said. “Algal blooms in Lake Erie started to reappear every summer during the past few years, and it affects the ability to serve the people. People cannot swim, and fish do not survive. Old Woman Creek comes through agricultural land and brings nutrients to Lake Erie. It is a source that brings algae into the lake, which is why we have monitored it for three years. We want to see the different types of algae and what causes it to be transported into the lake.”
Two biology majors, Anna Bagoly and Victoria Brown, joined Mihindukulasooriya for the most recent fieldwork. They collected more than 10 different water quality parameters and continued the research assistance five Northwest students provided during Mihindukulasooriya’s two previous visits to the OWC.
“I love what I do and at the end of the day, I was happy to share my passion with our students,” Mihindukulasooriya said. “I love sharing with not only geology students, but students from other disciplines as well.”
The project has given students opportunities to be involved in cutting-edge research in the field, work in a national lab and collaborate with professionals from Kent State University and the Ohio Department of Natural resources.
“The profession-based experience they gained within two weeks is more than what they would learn sitting in a classroom for a semester,” Mihindukulasooriya said. “The work they conducted in the summer is comparative to a job of an environmental geologist or an ecologist. This will give them a competitive advantage when applying for jobs. This research being a multidisciplinary work, it was a great opportunity to see the application of chemistry and biology in geology.”
Bagoly, a senior marine biology and creative writing major from Maryville, learned how to be flexible when it comes to fieldwork and problem-solving.
“Fieldwork is what I hope to do as I continue in science and having such a hands-on experience and independent opportunity as an undergrad was amazing,” Bagloy said. “You can be prepared, but there is always going to be variables you didn’t take into consideration and things that just go plain wrong in fieldwork. You have to be very flexible and oftentimes quick on your feet. The first few days were just about changing and adjusting our procedures to the reality of fieldwork and coming up with creative solutions to problems as they came up.”
Bagoly says the experience helped her become career ready by working with the same resources that professional biologists and water chemists use.
“We were able to have access to very sophisticated water sampling tools,” Bagoly said. “I gained a lot of sampling and analytical experience that I otherwise never would have. It was a combination of field, chemistry and observational work. I enjoyed every second of it.”
Brown, a senior biology major and environmental sciences minor from Festus, Missouri, says she applied her classroom knowledge to the real-world experience.
“I enjoyed gathering the samples and being in the field,” Brown said. “It allowed me to participate in everything a research project requires from gathering materials and samples to analyzing the results. This trip gave me an opportunity not everyone gets. I got hands-on experience in the field and worked in a lab run by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources while working alongside them professionally. This experience gave me a chance to work on a project that could potentially be published, which would set me apart from other undergraduate students.”
Students gained experience in lab research and networking with connections beyond their undergraduate degree work. They got a new view on geology work and are grateful for the hands-on field opportunities Northwest’s Department of Natural Sciences and College of Arts and Sciences offer to conduct research.
“They played the roles of environmental geologists and they experienced what it is like working as a professional,” Mihindukulasooriya said. “When the students came back from the trip, they said they loved the opportunity of the exposure to a completely new field. I was so happy to see all the knowledge they gained.”
Funding for the research was provided by the offices of Provost Dr. Jamie Hooyman and Dr. Michael Steiner, associate provost of undergraduate studies. Dr. Alisha Campbell, assistant professor biology, also provided research assistance.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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