High School Research Program Wins National Award for Investigating Niagara County Waters

UB chemist Diana Aga is partnering with Lewiston-Porter teachers and high school students to track the presence of pharmaceuticals in local waterways

Release Date: October 5, 2012

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Members of the UB/Lewiston-Porter High School partnership. From left: chemistry teacher Michelle Hinchliffe; UB chemistry professor Diana Aga; Lewiston-Porter students; and UB PhD student David Stewart (far right).

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- University at Buffalo Professor of Chemistry Diana Aga, PhD, and Lewiston-Porter High School teachers Michelle Hinchliffe and Colleen Glor have won a national science education award for their efforts to train student scientists to measure pharmaceutical contamination in Niagara County waterways.

Under the faculty members' watch, Lewiston-Porter juniors and sophomores are testing water from school water fountains, the Lewiston wastewater treatment plant and local streams, including the Niagara River.

Using methods Aga developed, the students are measuring pharmaceutical levels and checking for trends. They're trying to figure out, for example, whether there's a correlation between flu season and the presence of prescription drugs in water.

Aga, Hinchliffe and Glor are the 2012 recipients of the SETAC/Menzie Environmental Education Award, presented by the North America Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) to recognize programs that improve environmental science education, and environmental literacy and awareness among youth and the general public.

The award will be presented Nov. 11 at the SETAC North America 33rd Annual Meeting in Long Beach, Calif. The team will receive a plaque and a $1,000 gift from the Menzie Family, which the team plans to use toward future sampling and analysis of water samples.

"As high school teachers, we are extremely honored that our effort in advancing authentic science education is being recognized at such a distinguished level," Glor said. "We are also extremely grateful that Dr. Aga shares our enthusiasm and also recognized how important it is to make real-life scientific connections with our young students."

Aga, an environmental chemist, has been a pioneer in recognizing the dangers that prescription drugs and personal care products pose to the health of waterways.

Each day, antibiotics, birth control pills, perfume and shampoo find their way into lakes and rivers, releasing chemicals. Locally, scientists have found contaminants including antidepressants in the Great Lakes, which may lead to changes in the behavior of fish. Elsewhere, researchers have identified veterinary antibiotics as a potential cause of growing antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Aga has studied the environmental impact of some harmful substances and is currently researching how various treatment processes can effectively remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater.

It's because of this expertise that Hinchliffe and Glor, who teach chemistry and earth science, respectively, approached Aga for help in 2011. The pair wanted to give students hands-on experience in science by asking them to analyze area water sources, and Aga agreed to assist.

"I felt that it was very important to participate because I am a strong supporter of having younger people get involved very early in their career with hands-on research experience to get excited with science," Aga said. "This is the most effective way of learning and retaining information. When students see from firsthand information, from their own work, that the environment is vulnerable to pharmaceutical contamination from wastewater treatment plants, they will be more conscientious about protecting the environment."

Students in the Lewiston-Porter program design and conduct their own experiments and draw connections between their findings and reports by other scientists.

Some of the young researchers traveled to Japan in spring 2011 to present at an International Water Forum and to Winnipeg in Canada to present at the 2012 International Super Science Fair. Lewiston-Porter High School also hosted 15 Japanese students and teachers to exchange information on water research. A new group of high school students is being trained and is planning to attend the 2013 International Super Science Fair in Camborne, England in July.

Future plans also include working with Helen Domske -- New York Sea Grant senior coastal education specialist and associate director of UB's Great Lakes Program -- to develop a program for educating the public about how to properly dispose of unused prescription drugs.

"This has been an extraordinary experience for all of us," Hinchliffe said. "Any science educator will tell you the importance of the scientific method. For the past two years, our student scientists have been experimenting on local water supplies to determine pharmaceutical concentrations, analyzing concentration data to correlate seasonal trends and generating ideas to bring community awareness to this issue. This is as real as it gets."

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