NSF grant supports environmental research

A National Science Foundation grant will bring two new high-tech instruments to campus for work that researchers say is of incalculable value to environmental projects and undergraduate opportunities.

Nearly $69,000 from the major research instrumentation grant allowed the college’s Environmental Research Center to purchase two Agilent 7890A gas chromatogaphs, plus related computers and technology that will upgrade research on air and water contaminants in the Great Lakes region, said Jim Pagano, director of the center and a member of the chemistry faculty. SUNY Oswego and SUNY Fredonia collaboratively applied for, and received, three brand-new machines in all.

The increased reliability of new state-of-the-art equipment—Oswego’s existing machines are 12 years old—and greater sensitivity are key to measuring and tracking bioaccumulated, persistent and toxic chemicals that collect in wildlife, and in humans who consume those animals, and that potentially harm an ecosystem, Pagano explained.

“Most of what this lab does is track legacy pollutants, used in the 1960s and 1970s but since banned, but persistent in that they stick around a long time,” Pagano said. Newer, emerging chemicals of the past 15 years also exist, many tested more before use, but there are hundreds in all worth tracking for their prevalence and effects, he added.

“The gross pollution of the 1960s is not there any more, but the effects are much more subtle,” Pagano said. “We’re making progress, there’s no doubt about it, but we have to keep working. The awareness of these kinds of chemicals in the environment is critical, so we don’t make the same mistakes.”

Among other projects, the gas chromatographs will support the ongoing Great Lakes Fish Monitoring Program, a collaboration with Clarkson University and Fredonia measuring chemicals in fish, with an eye toward effects on their hosts and humans who eat them. The far-reaching project, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, involves analyzing fish tissue samples for more than 30 contaminants.

Because the newer gas chromatographs have greater sensitivity, “you can sense chemicals in the environment at a lower concentration,” Pagano noted. “Having the newer software and computers will allow us to integrate data better and faster. We will be able to do things at a higher level of precision and accuracy.”

The grant asks that undergraduates have an opportunity to use the new equipment, which Pagano said the college has long made a priority.

“Students are an important part of what we do,” Pagano said. “We’ve had undergraduate environmental fellowships since the early ‘90s that allow students to really understand what’s going on. They learn that preparing a sample is quite an involved process, and they learn to be dedicated and focused.”

Student researchers gain experience that can help with graduate school or into an environmental career. “The end products for students can be manuscripts with other authors and presentations at conferences, which really give a boost to further work in the field,” he said.

With newer equipment moving the project forward, the old gas chromatographs will not go to waste. Freeing the equipment from constant project use means many more students can employ them for classroom and lab experience to better understand the research process, Pagano said.

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(Posted: Nov 14, 2007)