A Reading Course with Local Impact: Analyzing Ecology on Campus

In my last post, I wrote about finding meaning in my academics through a research oriented class with local impact. This week, I am focusing on how another student is using research to make a positive local impact–not through taking a pre-existing course–but by creating a reading course that fit her specific academic goals. (If you are interested in reading courses, you can learn more about them here!)

This fall, Geosciences major Artemis Eyster ’19 is leading GEO 90_F2017 “Analyzing Ecological Integrity: An Assessment of Princeton’s Natural Areas,” a course she designed that centers around geological and ecological field research on Princeton’s campus. The eight students enrolled in Analyzing Ecological Integrity (AEI) are tackling field research projects such as measuring the bathymetry of Lake Carnegie to assess the rate of erosion on campus lands, gauging water-quality in campus streams, and surveying invasive plant species in campus woodlands. Artemis leads weekly class meetings to discuss course goals, review progress, and plan ahead, with the assistance of course advisers GEO Professor Adam Maloof and WRI Professor Amanda Irwin-Wilkins. I interviewed Artemis to better understand her motivation for creating the course and her experience taking charge of her academic work to make a positive impact on our campus.

What do you consider to be the purpose of this reading course?

AEI is about better understanding Princeton’s natural areas through rigorous scientific research and using our findings to articulate relevant land-use recommendations to the University. I believe that, as students going here, we should take responsibility for the land and environment around us. If we have the ability, we should use our scientific skills to help the University make decisions that protect our campus’s ecology. Another priority of the class is to record baseline measurements and design methodologies so that future student researchers have a strong framework they can expand upon either in classes or independent work.

“It is empowering to be able to identify something that I think is important and then go make it happen.”

How did you develop the idea for this reading course?

[GEO Professor] Adam [Maloof] saw a natural resource assessment report provided to the University by a professional consultant and thought that students could advance such assessments with high quality scientific measurements and greatly expand upon the work currently being done by the University. I love fieldwork, and I thought other students would also be excited to do impactful research on campus. Creating the class was a way to harness that excitement into commitment so that we would be able to get research done over the course of the semester.

One of the perks of AEI is that field work is a major component of the course. Here, shrouded by leaves, Artemis records notes during a vegetation survey of campus lands.

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Research with Local Impact: Analyzing Lead in Trenton, NJ

At least once a week, without fail, I will stop in the middle of the p-set I am working on, or the paper I am writing, and think “what is the point of this?” Sure, the pursuit of knowledge may be a reward unto itself, but I don’t want my academic goals to be purely selfish–I want my course work at Princeton to benefit others. To this end, I have sought engaging research-based courses that can have a positive impact on people’s lives. These classes combine my academic interests with my desire for meaning, and provide a concrete ‘point’ to my course work.

Sure, the pursuit of knowledge may be a reward unto itself, but I don’t want my academic goals to be purely selfish–I want my course work at Princeton to benefit others.

Last Spring, I participated in GEO 360, Geochemistry of the Human Environment, a course focused on providing chemical analyses of tap-water, paint, and soil for low-income residents of Trenton, NJ. Only 11 miles south of our orange-bubble along the towpath, Trenton is one of the poorest cities in the state and has a serious and systemic lead problem. Lead exposure is caused by the deterioration of lead paint into dust and the leaching of lead from pipes into drinking water. While lead paint was banned in 1978 and installation of lead piping was discontinued in the mid 1980’s, lead is still ubiquitous in Trenton where 90% of homes and buildings were constructed prior to 1978. As homes in the city age, the lead within them becomes mobilized and hazardous, and residents often do not have the financial means to keep their homes safe.

This map shows our measurements of lead concentration in parts-per-billion for water samples from homes around the city. Although most homes do not have high water-lead concentrations, there is no ‘safe’ amount of lead. (Map grid is UTM N zone 18)

Our class worked alongside Isles, a non-profit Trenton organization that has tested over 2,000 homes for lead and provided remediation work–all free of charge–over the past three decades. We assisted Isles with field work by collecting samples, and measuring paint and soil lead in urban residences. We then analyzed hundreds of tap-water samples, measuring elemental concentrations with a mass spectrometer and conducting multivariate analyses to quantify the correlations between metals within samples. Our work helped Isles identify at-risk homes in order to provide them with lead paint remediation and/or water filters.

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