The Charger Blog

Chargers Conducting Grant-Funded Research Exploring Impact of Pollution on the Local Environment

This summer, several faculty members and students are engaged in important research projects supported by the Quinnipiac River Fund, examining how microplastics and metals are affecting wildlife in local aquatic habitats.

July 18, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Dr. O’Brien’s research creates hands-on opportunities for students.
Dr. O’Brien’s research creates hands-on opportunities for students.

Anne Gilewski ’23 M.S. has experience working in zoos and aquariums, and she wanted to apply what she’s learned to her thesis research. She was particularly interested in a relatively new area of research examining the impact of microplastics on biofilms, the slimy layer that can be found on hard surfaces such as river rocks in aquatic environments.

Anne Gilewski ’23 M.S. checks a culturing cage in Honeypot Brook in Cheshire, Conn
Anne Gilewski ’23 M.S. checks a culturing cage in Honeypot Brook in Cheshire, Conn

Biofilms harbor unique communities of microorganisms and serve a variety of important ecological functions, from cleaning water to feeding organisms. As part of her project, Gilewski, a candidate in the University’s graduate program in environmental science, will compare microbial biofilm communities on polypropylene microplastic and natural stone substrate.

Gilewski developed four PVC cages in the Makerspace in order to suspend a network of household tea infusers to culture biofilm on the two substrates. She deployed the cages at two sites in Cheshire, Conn., in the Quinnipiac River Watershed. She will be analyzing the microbial organisms that grow over at least three months, conducting synchronous water quality and coliform analysis between the two sites. Through her analysis in the lab, she will characterize the biofilm community diversity.

She hypothesizes that the polypropylene microplastic will form a distinct biofilm compared to the naturally occurring stone substrate in both sections of the body of water, which could potentially harbor harmful pollutants and pathogens.

“I found several similar studies that examined microplastic biofilm communities,” she said. “I was interested in how biofilms can define an ecosystem’s ‘plastisphere’ – which, unfortunately, is a depressing term that acknowledges the ubiquity and persistence of plastics in our environment. Continued efforts to reduce plastic waste is in our best interest, but it is worth researching the temporal changes that occur to the plastic, especially on the biofilm’s dynamic adsorptive properties.”

‘A strong positive impact on a student’

Gilewski’s thesis project is supported by a $15,500 grant awarded by The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven through the Quinnipiac River Fund. It is one of two grants that members of the University community received that will fund critical research focusing on the Quinnipiac River. The grant was officially awarded to Sharon Kahara, Ph.D., and Nikolas Stasulli, Ph.D., who are serving as Gilewski’s mentors.

Dr. Sharon Kahara on Long Island Sound.
Dr. Sharon Kahara on Long Island Sound.

Dr. Kahara says she and Gilewski have a “great research partnership,” which has included collecting drone footage of salt marshes. Their collaboration has extended from the field to the grant application.

“I think one of the most validating things about receiving a grant like this is that it gave me a chance to make a strong positive impact on a student by imparting some of my grant-writing and research-design knowledge to her,” said Dr. Kahara, who leads a summer study abroad learning- and-research program in Kenya. “I was definitely excited when we got the good news about the grant!”

‘A huge concern’

Dr. Kahara is also excited about the research and the important impact they hope it will have on the local environment – and beyond. She is concerned about the deleterious effect of plastics – and not just the discarded waste that is easily spotted, such as plastic bags or wrappers. This waste is more easily removed than microplastics, which Dr. Kahara says can be particularly “insidious.”

Much is still unknown about the impact of microplastics, says Dr. Kahara, which are typically tiny and, therefore, difficult to identify. Some microplastics are developed commercially to be small, such as those used in beauty products, while others are the result of larger plastics breaking down over time. But, Dr. Kahara says, despite their small size, they can have a big impact on the environment and wildlife.

“While their impacts on humans are still being studied, microplastic ingestion by small aquatic organisms mistaking them for plant or animal matter is a huge concern,” explains Dr. Kahara, an assistant professor of biology and environmental science. “Most people don't think too much about how bacteria and microinvertebrates affect their lives until some ecological imbalance starts to affect ecosystem services that we take for granted, such as water purification and aquatic recreation.”

Anne Gilewski ’23 M.S. and Saurav Shrestha ’23 M.S. deploy a culturing cage in the Quinnipiac River in Cheshire, Conn.
Anne Gilewski ’23 M.S. and Saurav Shrestha ’23 M.S. deploy a culturing cage in the Quinnipiac River in Cheshire, Conn.
‘Could be dangerous to the fish populations or humans’

Dr. Stasulli also received a grant two years ago from the Quinnipiac River Fund to support research focused on the environment and climate change. This year’s grant is one of two that University researchers have received for a one-year period that began in March. Both grants will also create opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience assisting with research.

Dr. Stasulli and Anne Gilewski ’23 M.S. processing samples in the lab.
Dr. Stasulli and Anne Gilewski ’23 M.S. processing samples in the lab.

An $18,000 grant will support the work of R. Christopher O’Brien, Ph.D., who will explore how pollution in the Quinnipiac River impacts fish populations and how it may spread up the food chain through bioaccumulation. The research is a continuation of a previous Quinnipiac River Fund grant-supported project that focused on levels of metal in a species of fish indigenous to the lower Quinnipiac River.

“This work is critical for assessing the health of the river and the New Haven Harbor,” said Dr. O’Brien, an associate professor and director of the University’s Center For Wildlife Research. “It is important for local governing bodies to know the extent of metals that have bioaccumulated in fish species commonly consumed by people to ensure proper regulations are made.”

As part of his research, Dr. O’Brien will examine several species of fish captured from the lower Quinnipiac River and the New Haven Harbor, including striped bass, bluefish, and porgies. He and his fellow researchers will collaborate with Source Certain International (SCI), an Australia-based analytical chemistry and forensic science-focused company.

“SCI will analyze our samples with their instrumentation and share with us the results of running a full panel of metals on our fish samples,” explains Dr. O’Brien. “The goal is to find if the fish have bioaccumulated levels of metals from their environment that could be dangerous to the fish populations or humans who ingest them.”

‘This was a great learning experience’

For Gilewski, the environmental science grad student, the opportunity to conduct such meaningful research has already been exciting. Last spring, she shared an overview of the project at a Cheshire town committee meeting, and she appreciated the opportunity to engage with the community and to witness their interest in her research. She’s also gaining important experience in all stages of the research process.

“I am so grateful for the support and guidance I have received to get this project off the ground,” she said. “It has been absolutely rewarding to translate my crude drawings and bulleted notes to reality. I encourage students to reach out to their advisers or faculty for assistance in seeking out funding opportunities and writing the proposal. The process was challenging, but I am glad that I was able to have the opportunity. Applying for grant funding will undoubtedly be a significant part of my career and this was a great learning experience.”