When I began an REU at Bigelow Ocean Labs in East Boothbay, Maine, I felt ambivalent. The pros? I was working with Christoph Aeppli, whose papers and presentations introduced me to oil and environmental chemistry and always excited me; I was going to work in oceanography, a field rarely discussed at Haverford; and I was venturing to exciting new places I never visited before. My only real concern: that exciting new place was Boothbay Harbor, Maine—a town about an hour north of the “city” of Portland whose population quadruples to 10,000 during the summer months.
Deciding to make the best of it, I packed my fishing rods and plaid shirts before making the drive from Pittsburgh to Boothbay, a fifteen hour journey through the nicer parts of New England, the vast cow fields of Pennsylvania, and the pungent Jersey chemical plants along I-95.
After driving about an hour off I-95 along US-1 and local one-lane highways, I finally arrived at my house, positioned on a thin strip of land in between the ocean, a lake, and a tidal pond. The view from a local hilltop was incredible. I felt my breath hitch in my throat, either from the beauty or from the knowledge I would have no Internet or cell phone service at the house I was sharing with three other interns. Either way, I was breathless.
Unexpectedly, the lack of Internet is a blessing. To pass the time, I go out to a local lake called Knickerbocker—just southwest of Beets Me Road, an unpaved private lane that reminds me everyday that I am in the middle of nowhere, ME, zip code unknown—with other interns. We dive off docks, rope swing, and kayak. On weekends we make trips to various towns and explore, or just buy copious amounts of ice cream before finding hiking trails and scenic ocean views.
The lack of Facebook time also allows everyone to focus on their work. We are all interning at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Bigelow, in addition to having the nation’s largest selection of cultivated algae, studies several ocean processes, from cocolithophore viruses to computer modeling of global bacteria populations. Several researchers focus on Maine waterways as well, an example of the lab’s devotion to public outreach. Bigelow, as part of the Boothbay community, constantly reminds its staff that funding comes mostly from public grants, and therefore the taxpayer deserves compensation for their investment. The lab holds weekly public lectures to inform Boothbay about their research, performs research on local waterways and food sources (as mentioned above), and offers daily tours to showcase their research.
Since they just moved into an LEED platinum certified building that overlooks the ocean, contains several miles of hiking trails and a campus that rivals Haverford in size, they’re not shy!
Anyways, while interning at Bigelow with Christoph I am examining DDT degradation in extreme marine environments. Back when DDT (a tri-chlorinated pesticide with a nasty habit of being highly toxic) usage was at its peak in the 1960s, several chemical manufacturers found themselves with extra barrels or leftover materials from synthesis. The deep ocean, at the time viewed as an endless abyss with no effect on the surface, became a favorite dumpsite for these chemicals. One dumpsite off the Los Angeles coast is the resting place of several hundred barrels, all over 500 meters below sea level. As the barrels erode over time, DDT and degraded forms of the chemical (DDX compounds) leak into the surrounding sediment, spiking the DDX concentration in the immediate vicinity well over the background levels (already elevated near Los Angeles). DDX compounds are highly hydrophobic; they adhere to lipids and animal fat, and are incredibly difficult for the body to expel. As a result, they accumulate in apex predators (eagles, game fish, humans) at lethal concentrations.
I am studying some barrels from this dumpsite, applying a recently developed isotope analysis technique to track degradation of DDT to its dangerous metabolite, DDE, and that compound’s further degradation to DDMU. Since the mechanism and cause of the latter reaction is unknown, tracking isotope levels in DDT, DDE, and DDMU might answer unresolved questions (I’d tell you more, but I’d like to keep the project under wraps until I’ve finished work on it).
In addition, I am performing several artificial DDT and DDE degradations in lab so I can track isotope levels for known reaction pathways. By comparing these to natural degradation pathways, we might verify any hypothetical degradation pathways (or eliminate some from consideration). This kind of work will, hopefully, inform us about bioremediation strategies—how nature handles pollutants—and allow us to accelerate natural processes where pollutant levels are unacceptably high. Cleansing the Los Angeles bay region of DDX compounds would benefit the entire region economically, allowing commercial fishing to reopen in the area (and save some seals I suppose).
Day-to-day investigations at Bigelow are the same as in the White Lab. You spend about three weeks planning out experiments and reading several hundred pages of articles (questioning legitimacy of data along the way and adjusting their procedures to your agenda). You also spend several hours struggling with the Gas Chromatography machine, fine-tuning a procedure and diluting or concentrating samples only to find the liner is dirty and all your results were incorrect. Lastly, after using any piece of glassware, you combust it at 450 degrees Celsius to purge it of Carbon compounds. And, like your microwave oven, you need to keep plastic out of it…
Well, that concludes my update from Maine. If I don’t write anything else before the summer’s end, I will see you all back at Haverford. Come to the KINSC poster symposium and see all the work students from the White Lab performed this summer! See you there!