Principal Investigator Day research tackles environmental issues and asks unique questions – Susquehanna University

May 12, 2022

More than 150 seniors presented research, music and artwork at Susquehanna Senior Researcher Day, an event that gives students the opportunity to showcase the culmination of their years of study while honoring teachers who acted as their mentors.

“Senior Scholars Day gives us the opportunity to see the incredible intellectual transformation of our students from their junior year to their senior year,” said Provost Dave Ramsaran.

Identification of pharmaceuticals in water

Ethan Fix ’22
Credit: Gordon Wenzel
Ethan Fix ’22, a chemistry student from Big Cove Tannery, Pennsylvania, worked with Associate Professor Lou Ann Tom to determine if molecularly imprinted polymers can be used to detect low concentrations of certain pharmaceuticals – warfarin and oxycodone – in water.

Fix ran a small sample of water through the polymer, which was in powder form. If the drug were present, the drug and only the drug would cling to the polymer.

“After making the polymer, the printed polymer contains the matrix that was used, either oxycodone or warfarin, to form the specific pockets of that molecule. The goal is to remove as much of that initial template as possible to assess how well the pockets retain their respective pattern,” explained Fix. “We were able to recover 73.6% oxycodone and 74.9% warfarin using the molecularly imprinted polymers.

“It’s not a preventative solution,” Fix said, “but it’s something industry could use to ensure that the waste they release from their facility is free of pharmaceutical residues.”

Fix plans to attend Clemson University in the fall to pursue his doctorate in environmental engineering.

Determination of the presence of microplastics in coastal birds

Cara Brennan ’22, a double major in ecology and environmental studies, set out to determine the presence of microplastics in freshwater and marine birds.

To do this, Brennan examined the stomach contents of 39 birds – egrets, gulls, herons and osprey from the mid-Atlantic states – provided to her by a rescue facility. She found the presence of microplastics – from two to 60 pieces – in all but one of the birds.

Brennan, whose search was supervised by Carlos Iudica, an associate professor of biology, most often found black fibers and bits of foam and other unidentifiable fragments.

Laughing gulls, known for their scavenging habits, had the heaviest load of microplastics, Brennan said. Bay birds also contained more microplastics, unlike birds found along the Atlantic coast.

“It’s hard to see if the birds I examined died from these microplastics, but certainly birds that ingest larger pieces of plastic or that have ingested enough to form a blockage can die from this pollution,” Brannan said.

Brennan is currently seeking a professional position in environmental consulting and plans to pursue graduate studies in the future.

The impact of disenfranchisement reform

Katie Earle ’22, a triple major in political science, legal studies, and sociology, conducted research to determine whether restoring the franchise to convicted disenfranchised felons would lead to increased voter turnout.

“The criminal justice system has a disproportionately negative impact on people of color,” Earle said. “And therefore, federal disenfranchisement functions as another means of suppressing minority votes.”

Earle, whose research was overseen by Rolfe Peterson, an associate professor of political science, sought to examine whether individuals would regain their franchise, if they would vote. To test this, she analyzed 22 states that passed disenfranchisement reforms from the years 1997 to 2019 and voter turnout in those states before and after the reform.

Its findings indicated that, on average, voter turnout increased by 4.7% in the presidential election following the passage of the disenfranchisement reforms. In Virginia alone, a state on which Earle conducted a case study, voter turnout increased by 12.2%.

“These results help support the theory that once voting rights are restored and citizens can once again participate in civic engagement, voter turnout in presidential elections will increase,” she said.

Why do some spiders eject their waste?

Amalia Esposito ’22, a biology and ecology double major from Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, presented her research into whether the purse spider, a type of tarantula, projects its excretion for use as a drift fence, or a long continuous line to control the movement of prey or predators.

“Excretion is a necessary biological process for animals. For the most part, the primary purpose of defecation is waste disposal,” Esposito said. “The projectiles of purse-web spiders defecate from the top of their burrows. We hypothesized that they could use their waste to funnel or redirect prey or predators.

Together with Professor Matt Persons, Esposito found that spiders eject their waste an average of 23 centimeters from their web – but some eject up to 43 centimeters – or around 25 body lengths. She also discovered that purse webs exhibited a strong directional shedding bias, which led other spiders of different species to freeze, a known response to the threat.

“The linear patterns created by purse web spiders are consistent with a drifting fence, and the patterns appear to alter the behavior of at least one possible prey species,” Esposito said.

Esposito plans to attend graduate school to pursue a career in biotechnology.

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