Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink! Week 1


“Water, water everywhere and nor a drop to drink.” —-The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Wow! What a crazy first week! I hit the ground running with Dr. Caroline Masciello here in the Keith-Weiss Geological Laboratories. My situation seems to be a bit different in that I don’t have a mentor – which is actually ok. I’ve been working directly with Dr. Masciello and her colleague, Dr. Mark Torres. The very first day of research she was kind enough to sit with me one on one in her office to explain what it is she actually researches. She cleared her desk, whipped out a dry erase marker, and starting writing feverishly as she explained the Nitrogen Cycle and how this relates to her research.

Dr. Masciello’s notes on the Nitrogen Cycle

The whole time she was talking I was thinking I should be taking notes, right? Well, her explanation was so enthralling and I kept relating it to the case study we did in our orientation about the farmer and the DDT, I kept asking questions and she kept answering and continued explaining, and we were having the best time for almost two hours… and I didn’t take one note! So I snapped a picture instead before she erased it all off of her desk. Luckily, I was assigned an office in her building, and as soon as I got settled I rewrote notes based on this picture and her explanation.

Trying to understand the Nitrogen cycle

She also sent me several websites to read through in order for me to build my background into the research. Soon after our first meeting, she introduced me to her colleague, Dr. Mark Torres. They are working together on a project to test the waters of Buffalo and White Oaks Bayous. He gave me a tour of his lab and the amazing equipment inside. Unfortunately, I will not be working the equipment as it takes a lot of study and training in how to use them, but it is ok because that’s where Solana comes in. She is a rising Junior here at Rice and was hired to help Dr. Masciello and Dr. Torres with collecting, testing, and dissemination of data from the water samples of Buffalo and White Bayou. Each week, the four of us will meet here on campus bright and early on Fridays and then go together to collect water samples from three different locations: Buffalo Bayou, White Bayou, and Allen’s Landing (a point south of both bayous where they converge). On site, we will use equipment to test for some things (I’m still learning this part) but when Solana brings the samples back to the lab, I will get to observe as she uses the equipment to get detailed readings of Chloride, Nitrate, Sulfate, and Phosphates.

The second meeting with Dr. Masciello and Dr. Torres led to more notes (see below) and I had an Aha! moment while Dr. Masciello was talking. Through lots of reading and digging, I’m learning that the lack of oxygen causes the nitrification process to go crazy. As I was explaining that my goal was to figure out how to interpret all of this research and take it to kids in a way they understand, she said, “I just wish teachers could help kids to truly understand the importance of oxygen in water!” I told her, “Stop! Don’t stay anything else. I’m writing that down!” I did and I’ve looked at that in my notes this past week a million times thinking surely that is how my lesson will evolve. I’m not a 100% certain, but I do feel like it’s the beginning of an idea for my lesson plan.

More of Dr. Masciello’s notes about how oxygen and lack of plays into the nitrogen cycle.

My main assignment from Dr. Masciello is to research and dig up raw data on water samples from water sources around the Houston area (in particular Buffalo and White Bayous). With that raw data, she would like me to compile a spreadsheet of sorts for her to begin adding to as she collects her samples and tests them. Looking at reports is not easy because the raw data is not always given, so part of my job is to call, email, or contact in some way the authors of the reports to request the raw data. My time has been spent doing two main things: 1. researching to learn about the nitrogen cycle and what excessive levels of nitrates, phosphates, chlorides, and sulfates to do the environment as well as 2. reading through reports and digging up raw data. As I teeter between the two, I found myself asking lots of my own curious questions. I finally broke down and started a list which I’ve pinned to the board in my office. My hope is that through this experience, I will not only help Dr. Masciello in her research, but I’ll answer my own burning questions as well.

So many of my own questions!

I’m excited to be working with Dr. Masciello, Dr. Torres, and Solana. We will not only go out into the field to collect samples, we have discussed going on some field trips together to a few places such as Texas A&M Galveston, the Buffalo Bayou Cisterns, and maybe even to the San Jacinto River Authority on Lake Conroe (it doesn’t hurt that I have a boat and can take everyone out on the lake to the SJRA  location). If you are interested in touring the cistern, it’s open to the public. Here’s the link: https://tinyurl.com/ybzux2qs

The Buffalo Bayou Cistern

An added bonus is the Tuesday luncheons hosted by Dr. Masciello. It’s pizza and a presentation from graduate students to an audience of undergraduate students. We get to hear about the field experience of graduate students and how it is they are putting their degrees in geology to good use. Check out this link to read about last week’s presentation from Andrew Moodie. He shared his research experience from the northeast coast of China. The article is actually written by his fellow researcher, Brandee Carlson, but they worked together. https://tinyurl.com/y8qmsvlb

China research article from the Rice magazine called “Outcroppings”

I’ve lived in the Houston area for close to 40 years. I’m fascinated with Texas History as it is one of the subjects I happen to teach. Being part of RET is going to be an amazing opportunity for me as a teacher to connect the dots for my students –from the early beginnings of the Houston area and the reliance on Buffalo Bayou as a major resource to the science behind why it is important we treat the water in certain ways so as to not pollute the water of today’s bayous. Even though we no longer rely on it as a drinking source, the bayous are a major part of our history and continue to impact our environment. Knowing what’s flowing downstream into the Galveston Bay and beyond because of what we are allowing to enter into the water is important information for everyone to know so we are making decisions that will not harm our amazing ecosystems.

—-Melanie Smith

5 thoughts on “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink! Week 1”

  1. Hi Melanie,

    Something your kiddos might find interesting is how sometimes the levels of Nitrogen and Phosphorous are so high that when they end up in the Gulf they help generate algal blooms. These algal blooms “steal” all the oxygen available and create dead zones for fish so sometimes there are no fish near our shores. Many things contribute to the high amounts of Nitrogen and Phosphorous such as agricultural practices and gardening!- so keeping our backyards nice and pretty is not helping the fish in the ocean.

    1. Thanks, Mariana! Yes, the dead zones in the Gulf have been very interesting to read about. I’ve been thinking on this very topic and how to possibly make this into my lesson.

      1. One of my professors had us look at all the data from all the contaminants found in the water sources around Houston (Bayous, lakes, etc) and made us look for patterns- to see if there was a correlation of high levels of contaminants during summers, winters, hurricane season, etc.
        It was pretty cool to research because everybody had a different hypothesis about them.

  2. I totally relate to getting caught up in the discussion and forgetting to take notes. I’ve definitely had to spend time afterwards to catch up. Seems like a really collaborative experience and that you will be able to take a lot back to your students!

  3. I love fervent conversations! Sounds fascinating, and I love how it sparked an idea for your lesson plan. Continue to soak it all in!

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