All posts by Melanie Smith

That’s all folks…not really Week 6

What an amazing summer this has been! I’ve truly enjoyed my internship here at Rice with the RET program. Everone has been so kind and helpful. I’ve learned more than I could have imagined– both about science and about being a learner. Although I didn’t have much time off for the summer, I still have that enthusiastic feeling about soon returning to school with my students. I can’t wait to share my experience with them and my fellow teachers.

Week 6 started off with our poster feedback sessions. It was incredibly helpful! After talking out my story and referring to my poster on the big screen TV, I saw how I definitely needed to rearrange my visuals and blocks of text so that I could better support my research story through the poster. I’m looking forward to presenting at the Symposium tomorrow and especially seeing everyone’s posters printed out!

This week I went on another field trip.  My longtime friend (and former neighbor), Johanna Anderson, works at Suez Water Technologies and Solutions (formerly GE). They are located in the Woodlands, Tx not far from my home in Magnolia, Tx. I called her up and explained what I’ve been doing at Rice and asked her to tell me about what she does at Suez. So much of what she does when testing water is exactly what we do (but on a much smaller scale) here in the Torres Lab. She got permission for me to visit, and this past Tuesday I took a tour of the facility. Having learned so much about the nitrogen cycle and nutrients in wastewater, it was a fabulous experience to tour the labs. I was able to understand what she was talking about when she explained what all the machines did, and even better I was able to ask lots of questions! It truly helped me to see how the research I’ve been doing on a daily basis fits into the “real world” outside of the lab. I made a powerpoint presentation with embedded links of equipment and testing methods explanations and videos. Here’s the link to accesses if you happen to teach anything that would require your students to learn about water treatment:

Ion and mass spectrometry, chromatography – similar to the machines we use at Rice

Wednesday, our entire group (Carrie Masiello, Mark Torres, Solana Buchanan, myself) met for the last time during my internship. Solana is an amazing undergraduate student (a rising junior). Several times she and I gathered water samples from the bayous together. She presented all of her data and research to Mark and Carrie in regards to all of the samples we’ve collected this summer. In the meeting, I was able to talk about my poster one last time and present all of the research I have participated in with our group this summer. It was a great way to review before the symposium and a good recap of my summer activities.

Solana presenting her research

I’m kind of sad to say goodbye to my group. They are an outstanding group of scientists and educators.  I feel we became friends as well so I will miss seeing them around. I feel extremely lucky to have worked with them these last six weeks. And not pictured is Loredana Sucia. She is a graduate student working in Earth Sciences. I must also thank her for the many hours she spent with me, teaching me how to use Excel and interpret my data. She’s amazing!

Left to right: Carrie Masiello, Melanie Smith, Mark Torres, Solana Buchana

I would say that’s all folks, but I’m looking forward to seeing my fellow Rice RET teachers in the fall as we meet again to prepare our lessons for submission. Good luck to everyone on Friday with the poster presentations!


One does not simply… Week 5

Monday’s field trip was interesting! I enjoyed the presentation, the walk through the museum, and the water cycle activity with the beads on a bracelet. Waterworks Education Center is definitely a place I’d like to take my kids on a field trip.

Field trip to Houston Waterworks Education Center

All week I’ve poured over data and gone back and forth about how to use the different graphs I’ve learned to make in Excel for my poster. Last week I was feeling great about making my poster. I sketched out my ideas and thought, “Next week I’ll just dump it all onto the slide – no problem. I got this.” Uhhh, well, I don’t got this. Here it is, Thursday afternoon, posters are due tomorrow, and my slide is still empty. I really have done a lot in a short amount of time and my mind is racing trying to figure out what to keep and what to put off to the side. Making this poster is harder than I had imagined because there so much to say and so little space!


Bon Jovi and lots of data fill my head! Week 4

Hold up! Week 4? Already? Wowza – so much to do, so little time!

I know this is supposed to be a summary of week 4, but I’m going to squeeze a bit of last week into this blog starting with the Round Robin tours. The labs were amazing! I enjoyed seeing them all  – the flies, the pooter tubes, the nanotubes, the weird smells, the crazy warning signs – it was all fascinating! Here are a few pictures that I’m allowed to publish:

At the end of last week, I meet with Ryan Bare of HARC, Houston Area Research Council. He was kind enough to sit and talk with me at their Woodlands office for over an hour! He answered so many of my questions relating to my research with Dr. Masciello and the water chemistry of Buffalo Bayou and beyond. Per our request, HARC sent us historical data collected from a number of sites along the bayous where we are also collecting water samples.

This week, with the help of Loredana Suciu here in the Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences department, I’ve been able to put together data in charts and graphs that will support my research story for my poster presentation. Loredana is a master at Excel and disaggregating raw data, and it was a super helpful experience to learn from her how to take research results and put it into information to use for the symposium.

I’m trying not to panic but instead take small steps while remembering to breathe! Each time I sit down to work on my abstract, I have this overwhelming need to get my poster finished. I have to remember that there is still work to be done and it’s impossible to have all of my data and conclusions ready at this point. I finally made a rough outline of my poster so my mind can at least calm down a little bit.

Getting it down on paper…

This week, I attended another summer luncheon presentation for the undergraduate students in the Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences Department. Eric Barefoot was this week’s guest speaker. We talked about the importance of getting involved in research as an undergraduate student, the obstacles and challenges those students face, as well as the benefits of starting early– even if they feel unsure about the subject. Just ” jump in and learn as you go” was the message. I can totally relate to this because I know I started the RET experience feeling unsure of the academic language everyone was using around me, but it didn’t matter. I’ve kept going, Googled a ton, asked lots of questions, floundered, percolated on a ton of data in my head, and ultimately learned that I am more knowledgeable than I’ve given myself credit for.

This Friday, Solana and I will go and collect more samples from White Oak and Buffalo Bayou, but this time we will be 100% on our own! Dr. Torres and Dr. Masciello will both be out of town. Although I’ll miss them, I’m looking forward to sampling again with just Solana. We will be fine, and I feel so trusted!

Before I go, I wanted to give a big shout to my fellow RET teachers:

  1. Mariana – Thanks for sending me all that data! What I’ve learned from Loredana this week and what you sent me has helped me know more about drawing conclusions and supporting them with graphs from data in an Excel spreadsheet.
  2. Chinyere – Thanks for the helpful poster making tips! Sharing your previous RET experience was greatly appreciated.

I hope everyone has a Happy 4th of July!






Am I coming in clear? Week 3

Am I coming in clear? Hey, Mom, I said, Am I coming in clear?

If you’ve seen the original Willy Wonka, then you might remember this scene: Mike Teavee breaks apart into a million pieces, travels through the air, and reappears across the room put back together– just way smaller, but clear!

I feel like that’s what’s been happening to me these last few weeks. Things have been floating above my head in a million pieces, BUT they are starting to finally fall into place. My research story is beginning to come in clear.

As I was in my lab this morning, I was jotting down my thoughts on my phone as I realized this is how I’ll be framing my research story to accompany my poster presentation. Thank goodness for the notes app on my phone.

Back in my office, as I was researching the proper name for the machine used to measure isotopes, I found this video which is an introduction to the company and their goals. I post the link to the video because I thought it was so cool that the questions the narrator asks at the end are the points I made in my notes!

Click the pic below to watch the short video:

We are only halfway through week three and it’s already been a busy one! Diversity training Monday, a geology undergrad luncheon on Tuesday (we researched different types of fellowships to apply for- I already found something I want to apply for next summer:, and the first part of the Round Robin lab tours this morning. After my colleagues left the Torres lab I’m working in, I stayed behind with Dr. Torres and the lab assistant, Solana. Dr. Torres explained more to me about how we are testing the water samples from the bayous. After working with Solana to prepare samples to be tested for the different elements of nitrates, phosphates, and so on, we both got a lesson on using the Piccaro spectrometer for the first time. This machine tests for isotopes. By determining the water’s isotopic signature, we determine where the water actually came from. We would have started using the ICP Mass Spectrometer to test for ions, but we didn’t have any argon gas. That comes tomorrow.

The spectrometer that measures isotopes:

The machine that is measuring nitrates, phosphates, chloride, etc.

The ICP that measures the ions (that we didn’t use yet because we need more argon).

The group that round robined into my lab today:


Nitrates, pH and… dead bodies?! Week 2

Last week was the first time I was able to participate in field work with Dr. Masicello and Solana. The three of us met early at 7:00am on campus to grab all the gear and head out the bayous so we could collect water samples.

Our first stop was along Buffalo Bayou under a bridge. We parked near a very nice restaurant that sits on the bayou and walked quite a ways down to get to the water. Passing by the restaurant and all of the beautiful landscape was a bit eye-opening for me. I’ve lived in Houston a long time and thought of  Buffalo Bayou as a historic but not so nice body of water that happens to run through downtown. Thanks to the work of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, much of the Bayou is now rather nice. Miles of paved walkways, lots of landscaping, beautiful art pieces here and there, restaurants… we even passed a couple having what looked to be there engagement pictures taken with the bayou in the background.

Anyway, we made our way off the beaten path more than once to collect samples. We followed this same procedure each time: First, we collected a sample in a large plastic bottle. We followed the chemist’s ritual and washed out the bottle three times before filling it fully with our sample. We then placed a multiparameter in the flow of the bayou and waited several minutes. The meter measured key parameters including pH, ORP (oxidizing reducing potential), conductivity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, ammonium, chloride, nitrate, and temperature. After writing down our exact GPS location and noting the measurements from the meter in our handy-dandy notebook (Blue’s Clues reference for you 90’s kids), we headed back to the car where we prepared samples by pushing the water through 0.2-micron filters. We all took turns using a caulk gun to push the water through the syringe, pass the filter, and into the collection bottles. It’s tricky to put just the right amount of pressure on the syringe so the water will pass through the filter, otherwise, the filter goes flying off! The caulk gun was a lifesaver.

Collecting a water sample from Buffalo Bayou.
Writing everything down in our Handy-Dandy notebook!
The multiparameter
Using the caulk gun to help push the water through the 0.2-micron filter.
0.2-micron filters – the white one is unused and clean, the brown one is after we filter Buffalo Bayou water.


^^^^ Cool video of the two bayous merging together!

We followed this process at four different locations. On our second stop under a bridge near Allen’s Landing, we were approached by two security guys driving in a golf cart. They first asked us what we were doing and after we explained, they regretfully informed us that it was a good possibility that a dead body could be floating by any minute! Say what?! Sadly, a person had fallen in upstream near a dog park and drown. Knowing this tidbit of info made the rest of our sample collection interesting, to say the least. At one point, we all were on heightened alert because we could see something large and black which stuck slightly up out of the water floating our way. Of course, my mind when to a clothed body and that was the shirt I was seeing sticking up. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a large cushion-like pillow – whew!

The samples we collected were put in an ice chest and were brought back to the lab in the Keith-Weiss building. Solana will prepare the samples further and place them into several different machines which you will get to see this week on the round robin lab rotation. One machine will test for ion chromatography, chloride, phosphate, nitrate, and sulfate. Another machine with test levels of metals. The final machine will test for the isotopic signature of the water (meaning we can tell where the water actually came from – was it from the northwest or northeast regions of America or even Canada?).

I’m looking forward seeing everyone this week in our round-robin tour!


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:

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.

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