Early College students get ‘clean’ look at water

Students attending Robeson Early College High School have the opportunity to earn credentials from Robeson Community College at the same time that they earn their high school diplomas. Students enter the five-year program as ninth-graders and take mostly high school courses in their first year. During their second and third years, students add college courses to their schedules so that they are taking a mix of high school and college courses. By their fourth year and fifth years, most students are taking more college level courses and only a few high school courses.

In addition to their classwork, two fifth-year or advanced senior students, Samantha Lewis and Bailey Williamson, joined a research team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill working in a “clean lab” this past summer. Their work was a continuation of a water quality project that began about a year ago and involved undergraduate and graduate students at UNC under the direction of research scientists there and science instructor Dr. Stephen Singletary at RCC.

Initial activities in the project involved gathering water and rock samples from all over the state. Lewis and Williamson collected samples in the Southeastern part of the state and, while on a science field trip, from an area near Mt. Mitchell. Students from UNC collected samples from other parts of the state.

Lewis, who plans to attend Appalachian State University after graduation to study Microbiology and Chemistry for a possible forensics career, described the process she and Williamson used to collect samples.

“We would go to a site with water, such as a lake or river, and collect a bucket of water. We would then filter the water into a bottle and record data such as longitude and latitude of the site, the water temperature at the site, the pH of the water, the weather, and a basic description of the water.”

Accompanied by Singletary, Lewis and Williamson delivered their samples to the lab in Chapel Hill.

Lewis and Williamson, who also plans to attend Appalachian State, returned to Chapel Hill for three weeks this summer to analyze the samples they had taken. In the lab they worked to isolate lead and strontium isotopes from the samples using a procedure known as “column chemistry,” which requires the use of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid, chemicals that Williamson notes they don’t have access to at RCC. They then analyzed those isotopes in effort to determine whether or not contaminants in the corresponding water samples were anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic. Anthropogenic essentially means something is caused by the actions of human beings and non-anthropogenic means not caused by humans or, in other words, naturally occurring.

Williamson said the experience was valuable. In addition to working with substances that they might not experience locally, the lab experience was also different. While RCC has high quality science equipment, the research that Lewis and Williamson did in Chapel Hill required the use of a “clean lab.” While the labs at RCC are sanitary and clean in the ordinary sense, the term “clean lab” in scientific terms, according to Williamson, means “the regulations are much stricter.” She describes several precautions designed to prevent the influx of contaminants to the lab, including having to wear special shoes that never leave the lab and the use of special tape at the doors to trap dirt.

Singletary noted that the work that Lewis and Williamson did was significant enough that they will be presenting their results at a professional conference soon. He says that while much research has been conducted on water quality after treatment, there has not been a lot of research done on the amount of lead in water at the source. He added that while the amount of lead in these water sources is still within a range that the EPA considers acceptable, levels do seem to be significantly higher in the eastern part of the state.

“This leads to a lot of questions,” Singletary said. “Why are the levels higher in the eastern part of the state? Where did it come from initially? How is it getting into the water?” Theories exist that offer possible answers, but Singletary says that those questions provide a basis for further research — research that could involve students from Robeson Community College.

Samantha Lewis, left, and Bailey Williamson, seniors in the Early College at RCC, worked this summer with UNC on a science project concerning water quality. Lewis, left, and Bailey Williamson, seniors in the Early College at RCC, worked this summer with UNC on a science project concerning water quality.

Dennis Watts is the Public Information officer for Robeson Community College.