Using Fluorescence to Monitor Water Pollution

About Me

Hello! My name is Katelyn Meyer. I’m a rising senior double majoring in chemistry and environmental science. I’m participating in this year’s Brackenridge Fellowship, and after meeting several of you and learning about your projects, I’m extremely excited to work with all of you. A unique piece of information about me is that, last summer I worked at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania collecting data for a predictive model of harmful algal blooms, which can create unsafe swimming conditions for people and their pets.

Using Fluorescent Dissolved Organic Matter to Identify and Quantify Water Pollutants

My project uses fluorescent dissolved organic matter (FDOM) to identify and quantify water pollutants in a Pittsburgh stream known as Nine Mile Run. What makes FDOM unique is the fact that when it’s excited by light of a certain wavelength, upon return to its electronic ground state it emits light of another, sometimes different, wavelength. Using the wavelengths of light that excite and are emitted by a substance allows it to be identified. The intensity of the light emitted allows us to quantify how much of each substance is present in the water. Thus, fluorescence can allow us to create a “unique fingerprint” of a water sample.

This project was created with the intention to study the largest source of pollution in Pittsburgh’s waterways: human waste. Pittsburgh’s storm water and sewage systems are combined, meaning that on days where the city receives more than 1/8″ of rain, the system hits capacity, and dumps sewage directly into local waterways. However, aging infrastructure allows sewage to leak out of pipes and into freshwater ecosystems, even when it’s not raining. As it moves through the soil, the waste is subject to different chemical and biological processes that can change the structure of the molecule.

The goal of this project was originally to use FDOM to quantify these different sources of waste in Nine Mile Run. Due to current circumstances, the project has been amended to a literature review on the same topic. I will also be completing data analysis of stream sensor data collected by my mentor over the last year, looking for seasonal and storm FDOM patterns. My mentor for this project is Rebecca Forgrave, a graduate student in Pitt’s Geology and Environmental Science Department. Dr. Emily Elliot, of the same department, has also agreed to provide additional oversight.

Professional Goals

I’m strongly considering going to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in environmental geochemistry. The most impactful thing I’m hoping to gain from the Brackenridge Fellowship program is the ability to clearly communicate, through both writing and speech, complex scientific information to people that may not have the same background or education as I do. I know that this will be an extremely valuable skill to have no matter what educational or career path I choose to pursue.

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