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Three times last summer, Skye Harris ’02 traveled to Syracuse, N.Y., to slog through the shallows of mercury-contaminated Onondaga Lake and collect samples of its water and the plants and invertebrate animals that live there.

This academic year, Harris, a biology major from Newton, N.J., is spending about 10 hours a week in the laboratory testing those samples and trying to find out why the lake’s plants and invertebrate animals have been able to withstand — and thrive in — a toxic environment.

“I am proposing that there is a relationship between mercury-resistant bacteria and the plants and invertebrates in the lake,” she says. “The bacteria are able to volatilize the mercury and, perhaps by living within the plants and invertebrates, render the mercury harmless.”

Harris, who is conducting the research for her senior honors thesis, has placed the plants in aquariums to keep them alive for future testing and has diluted sediment, water, and plants in a solution that allows only mercury-resistant bacteria to grow. Harris then tests the bacteria to determine “if their ability to tolerate mercury is due to specific genes that code for mercury resistance.” She has already sent samples to a laboratory that analyzes the mercury levels and plans to conduct experiments on the invertebrates — mostly zebra mussels.

“She’s been a wonderful student,” says Nancy McCreary Waters, associate professor of biology and Harris’ thesis adviser. “She’s so incredibly self-directed as a learner. She works more like a graduate student than an undergraduate.”

Waters, whose own research involves ecology, says that Harris’ work crosses disciplinary boundaries within biology and is on the cutting edge of research on reducing metallic toxins in the environment. Laurie Caslake, assistant professor of biology, and Lorraine Mineo, coordinator of general biology and biology lecturer, are also members of Harris’ thesis committee.

“I’m so thrilled to be involved in this project,” Waters says. “It’s really new stuff. Most of the work in metals remediation has not been done with mercury.”

Harris, who took an ecology class taught by Waters during the fall 2000 semester, says she enjoyed the course so much that she began an independent research project on mercury contamination in the environment with Waters the following spring. She continued her work over the summer through a Nalven Fellowship.

“I am very glad to be working with her,” Harris says. “She is very knowledgeable on the subject and has done a lot of work with macrophytes and macroinvertebrates in the past.”

Harris adds that the academic environment at Lafayette lends itself to projects such as hers.

“The faculty is great and always willing to help students who are interested in pursuing further studies,” she says. “They are very available to students. In addition, the facilities are very good for research, and the various opportunities to continue research during summer and winter breaks allow students to form great relationships with their professors and further their research skills.”

Harris, who plans to attend medical school, is a member of Lafayette Environmental Awareness and Protection and sang in the concert choir during her sophomore year.

Categorized in: Academic News