Alverno science student and instructor

Sticking With Stem

For many students, summer means taking a break from classes. However, for seven Alverno undergraduates pursuing science degrees, summer brought a unique opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of fieldwork and laboratory analysis.

The students participated in a new grant-funded research program made possible by the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation, designed to keep students in touch with their STEM-focused academic work. As with many Alverno programs, though, the experience was much more profound. Students analyzed river and lake water for a community-based research study, honed the 8 Abilities, learned skills that engendered confidence, and connected abstract scientific concepts to the urban ecosystems in their own backyard.

“I had a mini-adventure discovering new places and noticing how the water from Lake Michigan and the rivers here could affect all of us,” says Patricia Zamora, a Biomedical Sciences major.

Zamora was among a small group of pioneers, as this was the first time that Alverno offered a science-based summer research program to first-year students. Faculty hoped to combat a tough reality — that 35 percent of U.S. students who set out to get an advanced degree in science or engineering switch their majors completely, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That percentage is higher for women, underrepresented minorities, first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds.

For the program, three students that had finished their second year worked with Alex Blom, associate Physical Sciences professor, to study the degradation of pharmaceuticals in standard lab water. Lab managers and instructors Jenna Coss and Megan Krueger worked with first-year students to test water from Lake Michigan and the Kinnickinnic River for pathogenic bacteria and lead. On four separate occasions, the students and their instructors trekked to local parks and waded into the water to take samples.

Back in the lab, the students learned how to recognize the presence of bacteria in water and then run tests to verify their observations. First, they put the sampled water into tubes with sugar. If the water turned cloudy after 48 hours, it indicated the presence of bacteria, though what kind remained a question. The students were mainly testing for coliform bacteria, which can be harmful to human health. So they mixed up agar formulated to grow these bacteria. They smeared a microscopic plate with the agar, placed several drops of water on it and then examined it under the microscope, documenting what they saw. The presence of E. coli, which grows as a shiny, bright green splotch, was obvious. And there may also have been some salmonella, which grows a deceivingly lovely shade of purple.

“I always knew the water wasn’t very clean, but I never imagined that it was that bad,” says Molecular Biology major Ana Olvera. “I’m definitely more cautious and more aware that the water quality is not great, not just for humans, but also for animals living in that park.”

When it came time to test the water for lead, the results were not as obvious. Coss wanted the students to experiment with a relatively new and inexpensive method that volunteers at local nonprofit Milwaukee Riverkeeper could adopt. It involves adding a gold-based solution to the water samples that produces a color change directly related to the lead concentration.

In their laboratory experiments, however, the students couldn’t repeat their results. Even water that hadn’t come from the river and was known to contain no lead at all would be a different color each time they prepared it. They tried to figure out what was wrong by repeating the experiments and perfecting their procedures. Still, the experiments were unsuccessful.

“I was really proud of their tenacity,” Coss says. “They showed up every day, and they were ready to remake solutions if needed. They even stayed late.”

As any scientist can attest, failure is a large component of experimentation. Studies often do not go as planned and results frequently open up more questions. For these Alverno students, practicing resilience was just another part of the scientific process, as much as learning how to use laboratory equipment.

“After doing this research, I definitely feel more comfortable in the lab and more comfortable in the procedures. Now I can actually focus on the theories and why we’re doing this,” Olvera says.