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On several levels, the research conducted by Maura Scolere ’05 (Clarks Summit, Pa.) as part of an independent study is changing lives.

Her research focused on finding estrogenic compounds, chemical compounds that result when products containing estrogen are broken down and eliminated from the body, in wastewater.

“The semester drove me as a science major,” she says. “I always thought I didn’t want to do research for a living, but I became interested in pursuing a career in bioethics and tying it into a law degree.

“Knowledge about this project in particular has enhanced my desire to do that. Doing this research exposed me to a lot of ethical issues that arise within pharmaceutical companies because a lot of these estrogenic compounds come from the companies.”

Working with an expert in the field, Scolere developed a testing process that has reduced the time it takes to identify estrogenics in water from four hours to 15 minutes.

The biochemistry major, who hopes to minor in biotechnology, says her method involves using genetically modified yeast as the testing organism to detect estrogenic compounds. Growing yeast in a sample of wastewater produces a color change that directly correlates with the estrogenicity of the water.

“If that can be done quickly and effectively, we’ll be better equipped to look at ways to remove the compounds,” Scolere says. “My job was to optimize the process — to take some of these methods and make them quicker, more efficient, and more effective.”

The results of her work will be submitted for publication later this year.

Scolere completed the research under the guidance of Arthur Kney, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“Presently, there is no regulation regarding the amount of estrogenic compounds that leave a sanitary sewer treatment plant or even what you put down the drain at home,” he says. “It just so happens, for example in the birth control pills women use, that a lot of the estrogenic compounds are passed through the body and enter a wastewater treatment plant, but they’re not actually being treated and­ most of it ends up back in the river.”

Because estrogen is a hormone that disrupts or changes endocrine system functions, these compounds have the potential to affect animals’ reproductive functions, Kney says. Although the effects of estrogenic compounds on animals are just coming to light, scientists now know that estrogenic compounds have the same potential as chemicals like DDT, a powerful pesticide banned from use in the United States in 1972.

Following her graduation from Lafayette, Scolere plans to continue her work in bioethics by pursing a master’s degree in bioethics and law.

It is a goal that Scolere would not have imagined if not for her independent research.

“It’s interesting doing research in other areas, such as independent studies, because sometimes you don’t get the realization that what you’re doing is part of a bigger picture. It’s also a great learning experience dealing with unexpected problems that come up — learning how to think on my feet,” she says.

Kney believes that Scolere will have no trouble fulfilling her educational goals because of her motivation and tenacity to overcome the intrinsic hurdles of research.

“This research is really helping her crystallize where she wants to go to further her education, and that doesn’t always happen so clearly with students when they get involved in research,” he says. “She’s just a super student — I wish everyone was like her.”

Scolere is involved with the Arts Society and writes for the Marquis literary magazine. She is a chemistry teaching assistant and an academic tutor. She researched protein folding and aggregation as an EXCEL research assistant to Yvonne Gindt, assistant professor of chemistry. Scolere graduated from Abington Heights High School.

Kney regularly involves students in his research, coauthoring papers published in scientific journals and presented at academic conferences. He has played a leadership role in obtaining three grants in less than two years from the National Science Foundation, totaling more than $650,000. He also helped establish a monitoring program for Bushkill Creek that is carried out by student volunteers.

Independent study courses are among several major opportunities at Lafayette that make the College a national leader in undergraduate research. Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News