Water Quality Research at the Duke Marine Lab. Oh, and Scuba Diving.

May 4, 2010

By Daniel Moss, Pratt junior

The following story is reprinted from DukEngineer, the annual magazine written entirely by Pratt undergraduates.

I was about to finish my sophomore year in Pratt and I still wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go down the structural or environmental route in civil engineering. So, of course, I made the same decision anyone else in my position would: to study abroad in Australia! However, because the Australian semester system starts roughly two months before Duke’s does, I still had half of a summer at my disposal… Well, what do you do with half-summers?

Discouraged from applying for a full-time internship or research fellowship, but still wanting to get a better picture of my major’s two concentrations, I looked towards none other than the Duke Marine Lab! Yep, the very same charming little lab that us Pratties never thought we would be able to attend. Hoping to participate in some form of environmental water quality research, I emailed a few professors, and before I knew it I was enrolled in Summer Session One, doing the independent research methods course under the mentorship of Dr. Kirby Smith, Professor of the Practice Emeritus of Marine Ecology.

Daniel MossMy overall job was to collect data on the concentration of fecal coliforms in water flowing through artificial wetlands, to be used in a comprehensive report that Dr. Kirby Smith was compiling. Fecal coliforms are excreted by warm-blooded mammals and can pollute water, risking the closure of oyster farms and causing other anthropogenic problems. The wetlands I researched was designed and built by environmental and structural civil engineers to catch water from a massive farm before it runs into an oyster-rich estuary.

Day-to-day, aside from cleaning my perpetually muddy boots and shooing mosquitoes, I was constantly learning, hands-on, and really enjoying myself. After breakfast I would go straight out to the marsh, gingerly step through the lush wetlands alongside a meandering tributary, and collect my water samples. On the road to get out there, I saw (from a safe distance) many species of birds, snakes and some rather moody snapping turtles. Back in the lab, I blasted music from Pandora as I set up the samples to grow their fecal coliforms in broth. Ultimately, I performed statistical analysis on my data, wrote up my report, and gave a presentation to fellow students and professors.

Though my actual report didn’t provide a very radical, ground-breaking conclusion, one thing was certain: In the process, I learned a ton about water quality, field and lab research, statistics, and even the public policy surrounding the issue. My professor and I got to know each other really well too, and he even let me borrow his fishing gear for the afternoons! Of course, I also had to “prepare” for Australia, and did so by teaming up with a few other Dukies to get our scuba certifications while at the lab! In fact, I just did an epic scuba dive last weekend, here in Australia! But that’s another story, and for now… Sayonara from down unda’!