Category Archives: Science & Environment

Chemical Containments in Our Water: The Silent Killer

Kayla Bertholf

S&E Editor


People who live in Northeast Ohio and along the coast of Lake Erie have grown up hearing the constant rhetoric about how the local bodies of water are polluted, gross, and unsafe to swim in. This region is home to what was considered one of the most polluted streams in America for a number of years. Adding to this rhetoric are the familiar stories of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in 1969, due to the dumping of sewage and industrial chemicals into Lake Erie, which contributed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many individuals have been swimming in Lake Erie or similar bodies of water their whole life. Most of the drinking water around my hometown comes from the lake. There is no doubt that countless bodies of water across the country and in Northeast Ohio are polluted, yet this does not stop Lake Erie from having over 11 million visitors each year. Are these people putting themselves at risk of exposure to harmful chemicals? You might be wondering what makes this contaminated water so dangerous and asking yourself, “am I putting myself at risk of exposure to harmful chemicals?” Looking at what chemicals may be present in our water, where they are located and how long they can persist, professors and postdoctoral researchers at the College are looking into rainwater contaminants and how this may impact our understanding of water contaminants across the nation. 

This work, being conducted in the Faust Lab group in association with Dr. Rebekah Gray, is asking important questions about what chemicals are found in rainwater and how they are able to persist. Dr. Faust, an atmospheric chemist by training, states that she thought “precipitation research would be a great area where Wooster students could contribute to our understanding of chemical transport in the environment.” Dr. Faust uses high-resolution mass spectrometry, instead of typical measurements, at the atmospheric level using aircraft and high-tech equipment to model the origin and movement of the air on days with precipitation events to help track the sources of environmental contaminants in water. Through understanding the source, we may be able to better understand the persistence and ability of certain chemicals to travel, which may be harmful to us and the environment. 

Although she started her work looking at metolachlor, an herbicide often used on grasses, Dr. Faust’s work now focuses on identifying and quantifying per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (P.F.A.S.) and identifying pesticides in rainwater. P.F.A.S. are used to make coatings for consumer products that resist oils, such as fast food containers/wrappers, nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing. If you look out of your car window on the highway, it is likely that you will see a product containing P.F.A.S. on the side of the road. 

It is common knowledge that both pesticides and fast food containers are found littered around the environment. According to Dr. Faust, P.F.A.S. are known as “forever chemicals” because they are long lived and persist in the environment. Why do we care about P.F.A.S.? They have dangerous health effects in humans and they are found everywhere. In her Independent Study, now graduated student Kyndalanne Pike ’20, organized volunteers to collect rainwater at six sites in the Ohio-Indiana region and one in Wyoming. She found P.F.A.S. at all sites, with the greatest concentrations being in our very own Wooster, Ohio, with amounts exceeding the EPA’s health advisory of parts per trillion. 

Knowing that there are potentially harmful chemicals in our rainwater, Dr. Rebekah Gray, postdoctoral researcher in the Faust group at Wooster, asks how long these chemicals can actually persist in our atmosphere. Dr. Gray has been analyzing precipitation samples dating back to 2018 and confirmed the presence of almost 20 pesticides. The more common of these include atrazine—which is largely used on corn fields and golf courses to minimize weeds—metachlore, and simazine which are both used for weed control. The more unusual and exciting finding was organophosphate pesticide, Dimefox, which is related to D.D.T. and has been discontinued by the World Health Organization in the early 2000s. If you have heard of D.D.T. and the D.D.T. – inspired Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, you know that D.D.T.-like chemicals have the potential to cause great harm to the environment, and can also have cancer-causing effects in humans. Although this finding is nerve-wracking, it is a reminder of the importance of studying how long these chemicals can persist in the environment, especially if we are still finding them in water today. 

Why might Ohio have such high quantities of these chemicals? It could be due to manufacturing and agriculture. Many towns along bodies of water popped up due to a rise in factories and good soil conditions for farming. While this is beneficial to the economy of the surrounding area, it has shaped the landscape in more ways than just new buildings. Chemicals released from factories before they were regulated can persist for decades. Dr. Gray states that, “understanding the role of different compounds (whether beneficial, harmful or sometimes both) was really interesting and felt like a fulfilling pursuit.” It is important to study and understand the consequences of pharmaceutical and industrial compounds on our water systems, especially with it being so impactful in the geographical area of Wooster and Northeast Ohio in general. Research in this area is still being done and will continue to increase our knowledge on what is in the water we drink, swim in, and collect in rain gauges.  To learn more about the creation of the EPA, scan this QR code! 

It’s here in link form. -Ed. 


The Intergalactic Battle of Colliding Black Holes

Nazifa Younus

Contributing Writer


Two billion years from now our galaxy is in for a shock. With every hour that passes, the Milky Way galaxy gets half a million kilometers closer to another sizable spiral galaxy called Andromeda, and it is only a matter of time before we collide. Yet, the picture is far from complete. Lying at the center of our galaxy is a giant black hole more than three million times as massive as the Sun. The black hole at the heart of Andromeda is believed to be ten times that size. 

Most, if not all, galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their centers. Everyone thought that these hungry behemoths sat at the heart of their parent galaxies, vacuuming up gas clouds and ripped-apart stars. Similar to the Milky Way, Andromeda is shaped like a giant spiral. When scientists first saw Andromeda, they expected to see a supermassive black hole surrounded by relatively symmetrical clusters in its center. Instead, they found a vast, elongated mass. The orbits of these stars had a strange oval shape. Scientists call this pattern an “eccentric nuclear disc.” A new study led by University of Colorado Boulder has solved a decades-old mystery surrounding a strangely-shaped cluster of stars at the heart of the Andromeda Galaxy. What is the reason behind this deformation?

In the 1970s, scientists launched balloons high into Earth’s atmosphere in order to take a closer look at the ultraviolet light of Andromeda. The Hubble Space Telescope followed up on those initial observations in the 1990s and delivered a surprising finding: the area rich in stars near that spiral’s center doesn’t look as scientists had predicted; the orbits of these stars take on an odd, ovalish shape. Tatsuya Akiba, a lead author of the study and a graduate student in astrophysics, created computer simulations to track what happens when two supermassive black holes go crashing together. This is an area of interest because our own Milky Way black hole and Andromeda’s black hole will probably collide when the galaxies themselves collide.

Their calculations suggest that the force generated by such a merger could bend and pull the orbits of stars near a galactic center; based on team calculations, the forces generated by such unions can turn or draw the star’s trajectory. When two galaxies collide, the black holes at their cores are thought to go into orbit around each other. Gravity pulls them ever closer, so the black holes spiral together until they merge, releasing gravitational waves all the while. The final moments before two black holes collide, when gravity is strongest, have remained obscure.

By far, the most exciting consequence of a black hole merger, though, is the “kick” the merged object can receive. The size of the kick depends crucially on the spin because unequal spins make the merger asymmetric, and that produces asymmetric gravitational waves. These act like rocket exhaust, pushing the black hole in the opposite direction; in the consolidation of galaxies with relatively small black holes, the kick may be only a few hundred kilometers per second, so the merged object may be booted only as far as the outer regions of its parent galaxy before falling back to the center. 

Since the merged object may very well take its super-hot disc of swirling matter and  with it. Thus, it will appear as a very bright, compact object called a quasar, displaced from the center of the galaxy. Mergers may play an essential role in shaping these masses of stars. In the process of collision, they release vast pulses of gravitational waves or literal ripples in the fabric of space and time. Those gravitational waves will carry momentum away from the remaining black hole, and you get a recoil similar to the recoiling of a gun after shooting. Scientists wanted to know what such a recoil could do for a star within a parsec, or about 19 trillion miles of the galactic center. 

Visible to the naked eye from Earth, Andromeda stretches tens of thousands of parsecs from end to end. Using computer models, scientists built models of fake galactic centers containing hundreds of stars. They then kicked the central black hole to simulate the recoil from gravitational waves. Akiba and his team’s findings help to reveal some of the forces that may be driving the diversity of the estimated two trillion galaxies in the universe today. The galactic center creates that distinct elongated pattern of the galaxy as a whole. This explained gravitational waves and their overall effect. 

What is produced by this kind of catastrophic collision does not directly affect the galaxy’s stars. Ann-Marie Madigan, a fellow of JILA, a joint research institute with UC Boulder, said, “the gravitational waves produced by this kind of disastrous collision won’t affect the stars in a galaxy directly. But the recoil will throw the remaining supermassive black hole back through space––at speeds that can reach millions of miles per hour. At that speed, black holes can escape the galaxy they are in. When black holes don’t escape the galaxy they are in, the team discovers they might pull on the orbits of the stars right around them, causing those orbits to stretch out. Madigan and Akiba said they would like to expand the simulation so that computer results can be compared directly with the core of the actual galaxy. They also expressed that their findings might help scientists understand anomalous events around other objects in the universe, such as planets orbiting a neutron star.

Mushballs Found on Jupiter Lead to Explanations For Other Planets

Melita Wiles

S&E Editor


Recent observations of hail-like objects falling from Jupiter’s atmosphere may explain the low levels of ammonia detected on Uranus and Neptune. The planet Jupiter’s clouds consist of both water and ammonia. On Earth, during a thunderstorm, we may experience hail, which is when frozen water pellets fall from the clouds, like any other type of precipitation on this planet. There is a similar phenomenon on Jupiter, where hailstone-like pellets fall from the sky. But on Jupiter these pellets have a different name: mushballs. Mushballs are ammonia-rich hailstones, consisting of an ammonia and water slush. They grow from a small ice crystal, encased by ammonia-water, which then is encased by an additional crust of ice. This crust forms because these storms form many miles up in the atmosphere, where the temperature is close to the freezing point of water. As the mushballs fall through the atmosphere, they absorb more ammonia. Mixing ammonia and water can keep the liquid at close to -100 degrees Celsius, weighing in at nearly a kilogram.

This discovery has changed our understanding of larger planets’ atmospheres. Their atmospheres are made of gas and subject to higher pressure than here on Earth. From our observations, these mushballs could be the reason Uranus and Neptune are missing so much ammonia. Observations at infrared and radio wavelengths show that these planets lack ammonia in their atmospheres, which is surprising because they are rich in other components that are just as common as ammonia. These mushballs could be hidden deep in the planets’ atmospheres, where our human instruments cannot yet reach.

NASA’s Juno, a satellite mission currently observing and orbiting Jupiter could answer this question. The spacecraft can reach further up in the atmosphere than expected. This region of the atmosphere will be hard to explore on planets like Uranus and Neptune because the altitude at which the mushballs are created is even further up into the atmosphere compared to the area where mushballs are created in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Other planets that are on the smaller side of the planetary scale, like Mars and Venus, are composed of mostly carbon dioxide, not containing ammonia, which explains why there is no mushball action on these planets. On Mars, their weather mostly consists of dust storms, yet this desert world is also prone to violent storms. Weather on Venus is extreme, where there are winds up to 60 times the planet’s rotational speed. 

Be on the lookout for mushballs and contact the science editors of the Voice if you see some on Earth.

True Crime Meets New True Chemistry, Dr. Raychelle Burks Shares Her Expertise

Kayla Bertholf

S&E Editor


Last Thursday, Lean Lecture Room at Wishart Hall was lit up with the charismatic words of Raychelle Burks, Ph.D. and associate professor at American University, speaking as the Helen Murray Free Lecture Series chemistry speaker. Chemistry students, professors and non-majors were all invited to listen to Dr. Burks discuss her impressive range of work. The technical lecture, Illicit Indications: Colorimetric and Fluorometric Visualizations for Forensic Science, and the non-technical lecture, Monsters, Murder, and Marvel explored and explained her and her team’s research in developing new latent fingerprint detection methods used in forensic science. Latent fingerprinting, more commonly known as dusting for fingerprints, has been one of the main and most well-known crime-solving methods since the 1930s. Dr. Burks works to increase the efficiency of this method using analytical chemistry. 

Many students showed up to listen to her explain how chemical techniques, like colorimetric and fluorometric sensor arrays, along with image analysis, can be used to detect and understand common targets of forensic science such as chemical weapons, fingerprints, illicit drugs and explosives. Between the Marvel references, asking multiple members of the audience to describe the same color of pink to illustrate the difficulties often faced in forensic chemistry assays and describing reaction schemes in a step-by-step method, Dr. Burks communicated science in an accessible and enthusiastic way. 

Personability on stage and in-person is an important part of Dr. Burks’ work.  ot only does she conduct analytical chemistry research and work as a forensic scientist investigating crime scenes, but she is also a scientific communicator presenting at DragonCon and GeekGirlCon. She also has appeared on podcasts, TV, and a science-meets-true crime column for Chemistry World, titled “Trace Analysis.” The column covers everything from how to hide a body to insulin as a murder weapon. In 2020, Dr. Burks recieved  the James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public from the American Chemical Society. Dr. Burks truly knows her audience, whether presenting a technical lecture, general talk or meet and greet with eager students such as myself. 

Dr. Burks’ lectures he Helen Murray Free Lecture Series, endowed through the Al and Helen Free Foundation in memory of Dr. Helen Free who passed away last May at the age of 98, made Dr. Burks’ lectures possible. Until her death, Dr. Free often came back to Wooster to attend this lecture series, even virtually last year. Helen Free graduated with a B.A. in Chemistry from Wooster in 1945 and went on to perform clinical chemistry research that revolutionized diagnostic testing, particularly for the “dip-and-read” glucose tests for diabetics. From 1987 to 1992, she chaired the American Chemical Society’s (A.C.S.) National Chemistry Week Task Force, and in 1993 she served as president of the A.C.S. Each year, the Free Lecture series invites a renowned chemical scientist to present a technical and all-level talk on their contributions to science as well as interact with chemistry students at a technical and personal level. Each year, the Helen Murray Free Lecture explains how a topic in chemistry has contributed to the quality of life for all. 

This year’s lecture accomplished just that, according to Dr. Paul Edminston, an analytic chemistry professor with similar interests to Dr. Burks. “The lectures were excellent in showing the human side to chemistry. The evening lecture was a joy to share in the sci-fi/fantasy that inspires Dr. Burks and her work. Science is done by real people who are driven by visions for new technology, social justice and fear of zombies, you had to be there…  that was awesome.” 

For anyone who missed the lecture but is interested in Dr. Rachelle Burks’ work, the link to her Trace Analysis Column in Chemistry World can be found using the QR code.  

The Science Byte: How to be a Storm Chaser

Kayla Bertholf

S&E Editor


After the tornado warning last week, you may be wondering how to become a storm chaser. First become a meteorologist! Although most do storm chasing as a hobby, meteorologists can get paid by a laboratory or university to chase storms for research purposes and can get paid up to $70,000 a year. The only requirement seems to be a knowledge of weather and access to vehicles. Storm Chasers follow the development of cumulonimbus clouds as they develop into tornados. As exhilarating as it sounds to be a storm chaser, there are dangers associated with the job. Although one might think the dangers would be the lightning or extreme weather associated with the storms, most work-related injuries or deaths for storm chasers occur as a result of driving accidents. Want to make some quick cash as a storm chaser? Sell the tornado videos you take to television stations for a minimum of 500 dollars, and more after you become more experienced. You can also do this as a hobby on your own and make around $17,000 a year. Sounds like a good hobby to me!

A Look Behind the Science of Habits and Mental Health

Will McMichael

Contributing Writer


Mental health has taken a sharp decline since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between fear of sickness and increased isolation, people are still recovering from the pandemic’s peak days. As we are transitioning to colder weather in Ohio, as well as coming up on finals, it is critical to be aware of our mental states. There are a number of habits you can develop which have been proven to improve mental health, and there is science behind each one.

Stress is a factor which has consistently been shown to increase depressive symptoms and cause a decline in mental health. In scientific studies, it has been shown that stress reduces serum levels of a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Low BDNF levels are associated with depressive symptoms and high BDNF levels are associated with positive mental health. BDNF is not only responsible for antidepressant effects but is implicated as a key modulator for depression when taking certain antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, more commonly known by their acronym SSRI. Because medication is not always the right fit for an individual, there are a number of daily life changes which can be utilized, in conjunction with medication or not, to robustly support mental health. A 2013 meta-analysis confirmed that exercise is moderately more effective than the control as an aid for depressive symptoms. This is further supported by literature indicating that serum BDNF levels can be drastically increased by exercise, where the intensity of the exercise positivity correlates with the increase in expression of BDNF. 

So what does this mean? These findings suggest that, for some people, exercise alone may be an effective route for aiding mental health. It also suggests that the more intensely you exercise, the more likely it is that you will reap its positive mental health benefits. 

Other than exercising, there are several daily life changes which can further increase BDNF levels, thus having the potential to aid a person’s mental health. For example, chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to consistently increase stress in individuals. This increase in stress can, in turn, lower BDNF levels and hurt prospects of positive mental health. It is no surprise that having healthy sleeping habits may make you feel better. Indeed, chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce expression of BDNF in a brain region known as the hippocampus (a brain region commonly associated with memory), thus giving us one possible mechanism which may explain negative mood onset after chronic sleep deprivation. 

Social interaction is another factor which can aid mental health. Studies have found that staying socially isolated can greatly increase the chance of developing negative mental health habits. It is hypothesized that this is in part due to the effect isolation may have on the immune system. In the literature, it is clear that loneliness has negative effects on mental health, and that one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to make important connections with people close to you.

         Another potential avenue for increasing your mental wellbeing is through diet. Westernized diets that are high in sugars, saturated fats and processed foods are not simply negative for your physical health but also for your mental health. Processed food, processed sugars and saturated fats may lead to increases in inflammation and are also associated with lower levels of BDNF. Eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, dark leafy greens which contain antioxidants, coffee and spices with polyphenols, and beans and nuts with fiber all contribute to you feeling better physically and mentally. While indulging in your favorite junk food may cause transient increases in dopamine, making you feel happy for a short term, the science makes it clear that healthy foods are a more sustainable path towards positive mental health and better brain functioning.

The last habit is mindfulness. Through mindfulness exercises, you can watch your thoughts without judgment and let them passively enter and exit your mind. This facilitates a strengthening of emotional recognition and control, leading to less impulsive decisions and better mental habits. Meditative mental exercises have also been shown to significantly increase serum BDNF levels.

         So where does this leave us for protecting our mental wellbeing as we become more isolated and stressed as it becomes colder and final projects and tests are underway? Out of all the factors mentioned, it is clear that it is most important to stay socially engaged and participate in meaningful relationships. Additionally, don’t discount the value of sleep. Not only is sleep needed for your memory, but it is critical to avoiding excess stress. If you are feeling overwhelmed, taking a walk or spending an hour in the gym can greatly improve your mental and physical wellbeing. Although tempting when feeling down, avoiding excessive sugar and processed foods in favor of something rich in nutrients can be an additional avenue for aiding your mental health. Last but not least, spending some time doing mindfulness exercises can improve emotional regulation and prepare you to sit down and focus on your studies. Scientifically, only engaging in one of these habits is not sufficient or necessary for positive mental health depending on the individual. All of these habits lead to a better quality of life, and greatly benefit your physical and mental health—two aspects of life which are so intricately connected.