NORMAL — A special lab involved in water-quality research at Illinois State University has analyzed nearly 7,000 water samples since it opened a year ago, and university officials are looking for ways to expand its work.
Among the Laboratory for Environmental Analysis' projects is monitoring water quality at the city of Bloomington's two reservoirs, Lake Bloomington and Evergreen Lake, which are affected by agricultural runoff.
Bill Perry, lab director and associate professor, said, “We're looking for model agricultural practices to maintain their production and improve water quality.
“This laboratory … provides local and regional scientists access to affordable analytical facilities that was not available before.”
A $150,000 National Science Foundation grant was used to obtain the flow injection analyzer that is a central part of the lab.
In the past five years, $2.5 million in grants and contracts have been brought into the university by Perry and Catherine O'Reilly of the department of geography, geology and the environment, and another collaborator, Shalamar Armstrong, formerly of ISU's agriculture department, who is now at Purdue University.
Those grants and contracts have come from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the city of Bloomington, the Illinois Corn Growers, the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council and the Nature Conservancy, said Perry. The money is being used to study water quality-related issues in this region.
Perry said the researchers are seeking another grant to expand the types of analysis they can do to include testing for dissolved organic carbon and suspended organic carbon. This could be useful for studying algal blooms in the lakes to determine what causes them, he explained.
If researchers can detect what triggers the blooms in Lake Bloomington and Evergreen Lake, it could assist the city in knowing when to store extra water before the blooms or begin treatment sooner, he said.
The current equipment in the lab is used primarily to test water for such components as phosphorus, nitrates, ammonium and nitrogen, said Perry.
It used to take three people eight hours to analyze 100 samples, he said. With new equipment, that work can be done in about 3 hours, he said.
The lab also brought together in one place equipment that had been in three different departments in three different buildings, said Perry.
Having all the equipment together is not only more efficient, it also allows students to “be more collaborative with each other,” said research coordinator Victoria Heath.
“The new lab has been a point of pride for the department,” she said.
Both undergraduate and graduate students work in the lab. Heath trains at least 10 undergraduates to work in the lab each academic year.
One of them is Crystal Jones, a junior in biology from Villa Park, who is planning a career in genetic counseling.
Although the work done at the lab is not related directly to her chosen field, understanding research procedures and protocols and learning computer programs will help her career, said Jones.
“I'm getting so much lab experience that I can transfer into any job,” she said.
The lab also brings together several departments, including biological sciences, agriculture and geology, geography and the environment.
Greg Simpson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the lab “represents the collaborative spirit that's typical of ISU.”
Perry said the college is also working with sociology professor Joan Brehm to develop a water center that would do more collaborative research on water issues.