By Brittany Karas, Stephanie Marco, Brian Buckley, Debra Laskin, and Lauren Aleksunes
Early introduction to research is pivotal to kindling student interest in fields such as toxicology and environmental health sciences. Of the contaminants in our environment, heavy metals have been relevant to human health historically, but have recently resurfaced as a cause for concern in the United States. To increase scientific literacy of toxicology and promote team-based learning, undergraduate students in the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Program at Rutgers University participated in an educational activity to assess heavy metal contamination of drinking water in NJ and surrounding areas. This project was part of a 10-week research program, spanning May through July 2016, that included didactic sessions on the developmental neurotoxicity of lead by Dr. George Rhoads and assessment of heavy metal concentrations in the environment by Dr. Brian Buckley. Twenty students were divided into four teams to determine a list of sites for sampling, which included academic buildings, dormitories, and residences. Students were provided materials and instructions on how to collect specimens, including pre- and post-purge procedures, and details on evaluating the condition of the collection site. The Chemical Analysis Facility performed analysis of heavy metal concentrations using inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry. Students were able to tour the facilities and learn more about the technology.
Teams were provided with their data and asked to compare their results to the NJ Drinking Water Quality Standards for real-world context and regulatory interpretation with an occupational physician, Dr. Robert Laumbach. For samples that had detectable levels of heavy metals, concentrations ranged as follows: Al (0.5-81.0 ppb), As (0.21-0.81 ppb), Cd (0.1-1.8 ppb), Cr (0.1-1.2 ppb), Pb (0.05-9.2 ppb) Li (0.6-5.4 ppb), Mn (0.05-85.7 ppb), and Ni (0.20-87.5 ppb). Additional hypotheses about potential contributions, including naturally-occurring and anthropogenic sources, water system sources, and electronic waste were assessed. There were no trends indicating aggregate metal locations, differences in concentrations between initial draws and following a purge, or that electronic waste such as nickel-cadmium batteries contributed to a positive correlation between metals commonly used in the same products. Of the topics and activities included in the SURF program, a team-based water sampling exercise, which coupled toxicology, exposure, and environmental health science, was rated favorably amongst participants and fostered collaboration and networking. Students enjoyed the program, with one participant quoted as saying, “We had the opportunity to hear and speak to different research processes. I also liked how we used a current health issue, lead in drinking water, and made a project [around] that.” This project was supported by the ASPET SURF Program, NIEHS T32ES007148, R25ES020721, P30ES005022, and the SOT Internship Program.