Hello readers! Justin Wright here, research assistant for the Lamendella lab at Juniata College, excited to offer you my perspective on our quest to obtain a seemingly impossible amount of water samples with a single weekend.
Crunch time doesn’t even begin to describe the mad rush that the Grant Lab underwent this past weekend. Due to an unfortunate error in packaging, we needed to re-collect water samples from 26 sampling locations scattered throughout the Central Pennsylvania area, transport these samples back to campus, and have them filtered and packaged for shipment to the U.S. Geological Survey for Mercury analysis… all within a 3 day period. In addition to the sheer amount of samples that we had to collect, we needed to use some finesse when it came to coordinating the time of sample collection with the time of filtration back in the lab. The reason being, water samples set for mercury analysis cannot remain idle in their bottles for longer than 24 hours. If a sample remains in its bottle beyond 24 hours, Hg can adsorb to the plastic potentially changing Hg concentrations in the sample. Therefore, not only was this weekend going to be a physically daunting challenge, but also a mental one, in terms of working out a plan to get all of the samples collected and returned to the lab so that they could undergo filtration without sitting in the freezer longer than 24 hours. To accomplish this task, our whole team needed to be on its A-game. Everyone had to know their role and be aware of their deadlines. Time was our enemy, and we were constantly racing against the clock. I felt like we were Keanu Reeves in a weekend-long version of the movie Speed, one mistake and everyone was in trouble. I It was beyond crunch time, it was “I don’t know how are we going to get this done in time”…time.
By Thursday (August 7th), our plan was set. Friday morning at around 830 AM, two vans, containing two researchers each, were going to collect 15 of the 26 samples we needed to obtain. One van’s route contained 9 sampling sites, the other contained 7, but with a greater distance to travel by van. It was decided that Dr. Grant and I would take the route containing 9 sampling sites, and Caleb and Allison would take on the route with 7 sampling locations. We were hopeful to get the samples back into lab by about midnight so that they could be ready for filtration the following morning. We were lucky enough to get in touch with former Juniata student and Grant Lab member Elliott Perow, to lead the filtering effort. Elliott, along with two other team members, Aaron and Abby, were prepped to begin filtration at 730 AM Saturday morning, beginning with the sample collected earliest the day before, to ensure no sample sat beyond the allotted 1 day period. The plan was set, but actually carrying it out was going to be the real challenge.
Dr. Grant and I were on the road by 830, fully aware of the physical and logistical challenge we were about to face. While some of the sampling locations were rather easy to access, most were a bit difficult. We decided to hit 6 of the 9 easier locations first, and then tackle the most challenging 3 last. Of the 3 difficult locations, the hardest site to access was Mocassin Run. Only being about a mile hike form the van, when it comes to distance Mocassin doesn’t stand out as difficult compared to the other sites. The trouble with Mocassin, is that after a flat ¼ mile hike, the remaining ¾ involves scaling a hill with a slope of more than 45o. The terrain is extremely rocky, with some of the thickest rhododendron bushes I have ever seen. As we were going through the first 6 sampling locations, Dr. Grant and I were continuously mentally preparing ourselves for the intense hike to Mocassin (see June 22nd post entitled “Mocassin Revisited” to see a video clip of an earlier trip into Mocassin).
This intense focus and mental preparation for the challenges ahead really benefitted Dr. Grant and I. Every sampling location went like clockwork, and seemingly out of nowhere, we had completed 6 sampling locations by about 230 in the afternoon. Needless to say we were pumped, but we still had to hop over our biggest hurdle, Mocassin. Upon our arrival our spirits were high, but physically I was beginning to feel a little weak. Being a 6 foot, 150 pound, out-of-shape microbiologist, the day’s hikes were beginning to take a toll on my body. But on we went. Upon reaching the ¾ mile downhill slope, I fell within a matter of seconds. Dr. Grant laughed and told me that: “If you only fall once at Mocassin then you are doing something right.” After falling 8 more times, I lost count. On we went, and eventually we made it too the stream. As we collected water samples and caught our breath, I suggested to Dr. Grant that he should give his research students badges for surviving some of the more difficult sampling locations. He said he would consider it, and if he does I am looking forward to obtaining my Mocassin badge because we did indeed survive the climb back to the van!
After completing Mocassin, our morale couldn’t be higher, and while the remaining two sites were challenging, we completed them with great efficiency. When the last water sample was bagged and put on ice, Dr. Grant and I were amazed to see that it was only 830. A trip that we had expected to potentially take us into the early morning hours of the next day was completed before nightfall. We rendezvoused with Caleb and Allison at the lab by 1030, as they had also completed their day’s work with extreme speed. We were ecstatic. Like Keanu Reeve’s we had beaten the clock, but the ride wasn’t over yet.
15 of the 26 samples had been collected, 11 remained. We decided to attack the sampling effort with the same strategy as the day before, 2 vans with 2 researchers to a van. This time, Caleb and I would sample 7 locations, and Dr. Grant along with his wife, Kimi, tackled the remaining 4 locations.
Again, both vans attacked sample collection head-on, and after the monstrous challenge that we had faced on Friday, obtaining these final samples came with ease. By 1030 PM Saturday night, Caleb and I were back in lab again with all 7 samples collected. We went to put our samples in the freezer and noticed that there weren’t any other samples inside.
“That’s odd,” I thought to myself. I had expected to see the 4 samples that Dr. Grant had collected with Kimi that same evening, since the filtration team’s job on Saturday was to filter only the 15 samples we had collected on Friday. Surely they couldn’t have been so ahead of schedule that they also completed the 4 samples Dr. Grant brought in with his wife? Well…they were. The filtration team had successfully filtered 19 samples for Mercury analysis in a single day. Not only were we getting the job done, we were ahead of schedule. The end was in sight.
On Sunday, Elliot, Abigail and I filtered the final 7 samples Caleb and I collected the day before. As I observed and carried out the filtration process, I realized how truly impressive it was that the team had gotten 19 samples done the night before. Each step required extreme focus, as there were many pieces involved in the filtration process, and avoiding contamination was of the highest concern. One thing I continued to forget was that, as the person deemed “clean hands” I could not touch anything besides the equipment involved with the filtration process. I must have burned through 10 pairs of nitrile gloves by the end of the day, as I continued to touch the countertop. Looking back, after the arduous days of sampling beforehand, my mind was not quite in the freshest of states. Nevertheless, we got through it. After filtration was complete, Dr. Grant, Elliot and I packed up the samples for shipment with extreme care to avoid making the same mistake with improper packaging. By 4 pm we had finished. Just like that it was over. The samples were sent, and we were spent. Everyone returned home for much needed rest.
Looking back on the entire weekend, I have realized how rewarding of an experience it was for me, as I hope it was for everyone else involved. It is truly amazing what we can accomplish as humans if we have passion for what we are working towards. When it comes to solving the environmental impacts and the unanswered questions behind fracking, the passion we posses here at Juniata is staggering, and I can say with confidence that it matches with any large institution in the county. While this work required intensive work, dedication and time, it was worth every second.
As Dr. Grant and I were on the road Friday evening, we discussed our motivations for taking on this project. We both agreed that we are not trying to combat fracking corporations, simply to prove that fracking is “bad”. Rather, with fracking being such a new but large-scale process with such huge potential environmental implications, it would be foolish and short-sighted to not be curious to investigate what these implications may be. Streams are the veins of our earth, and it is our duty as environmental researchers to ensure their overall health is being maintained. If this weekend proved anything, it proved that the Gramendella lab (Grant and Lamendella labs) contain individuals passionate enough to do anything to investigate the implications of fracking. I am convinced that with continued dedication, we will continue to answer some of the unanswered questions behind fracking. I can’t wait to get my Mocassin badge, and I look forward to getting many more.