The dozen high school students in the iCREATE CTE Bioscience class toured two very different labs at NAU on Monday, April 24th. First, they ventured to the Geochronology Lab in the Science Lab Facility building where Lab Manager Katherine Whitacre described the process of amino acid racemization and how it is used to date small specimens including single microorganisms or bits of mollusk shells, egg shells, etc. Northern Arizona University has one of the few amino acid geochronology labs in the United States and has analyzed samples from all over the world for almost 20 years under the leadership of Lab Director and Regents Professor Darrell Kaufman. Below, graduate student Ethan Yackulic showed one of his sediment cores from Crater Lake in Colorado.
The lab has a large walk-in refrigerator with lake cores from all over the world, collected by NAU researchers and graduate students. The cores are kept cold so unwanted microorganisms don't grown on the surfaces. Ethan uses a Specim hyperspectral single core scanner designed for studying lake sediment core samples. By changing the range of wavelengths, he can detect locations of specific minerals or organic compounds, to help pinpoint where to collect his samples.
In the photos above: Katherine is dissolving mollusk shells with hydrochloric acid, an iCREATE student looks at shells under the microscope, and graduate student Kara Gibson uses a particle size analyzer on soil samples for her dissertation research.
Many of the research results from this lab focus on understanding paleoclimate change, which may then inform our understandings of, and models for, present climate change. You can learn more about this research here.
The next tour was to Nathan Nieto's lab in the Wettaw Biochemistry Building. Dr. Nieto has studied numerous animals in the past, but these days his lab is overwhelmed with ticks being mailed to him from all over the country. On an average day, the graduate students and undergraduate researchers in his lab will identify, grind, extract DNA and run real time PCR on 200-400 samples to determine whether the tick is host to pathogens such as Lyme disease and tick-borne relapsing fever. One week in May of 2016 he received over 2,000 ticks in the mail and it looks like he may exceed that this May. The tick study will identify what regions of the country have which species of ticks and what diseases they are carrying. This project will create a "heat map" of tick-borne diseases that can then be used by doctors and epidemiologists.
Photos above: Nate looks over where some of the many ticks are being mailed from, just a few of the mailboxes of ticks in his lab, and undergraduate Shienna Braga who is identifying the species of ticks at the microscope.
Photos above: Nate shows an iCREATE student the number of eggs one female tick laid, and graduate student Tanner Porter leads the lab tour for the students, including the refrigerator with thousands of samples from numerous animals including coyote tongues (possible reservoir for Rocky Mt. Spotted Fever), mice, squirrels, bats and more!
Nate's lab website explains what keeps him busy: "Our research focuses on the ecological maintenance and evolution of infectious diseases in wild animals and how this translates into transmission of disease to humans, domestic animals, and wildlife. We use a mixture of microbiology, molecular biology, phylogenetics and population ecology to investigate empirical infectious disease dynamics in wild animal populations.
Thank you Katherine, Nate, and generous students for sharing your time and knowledge with the iCREATE bioscience class!
Guest Blog Post by Rose Houk
It’s pretty easy to just flush the toilet and forget where our human waste goes. For most of us, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”
But on a Saturday in April, nearly 50 interested residents toured Flagstaff’s Rio de Flag Water Reclamation plant to look a little deeper into where our wastewater goes once it leaves our homes and businesses.
It turns out the behind-the-scenes story is really interesting.
The Rio de Flag Water Reclamation Plant is a clean, attractive building standing just beyond Sam’s Club by a trail along the Rio. Inside are bright offices, maps on the walls, and a friendly city employee, Jim Huchel, who greeted us and led the tour.
Once we were all signed in, Jim gave us a firsthand look at the reclamation process from beginning to end. The plant, built in 1993, receives wastewater from the west side of Flagstaff. It first comes into the “primary clarifier,” what looks like a big black spaceship that just touched down. We peered inside to see a thick, dark, watery substance just sitting there.
Unseen were the natural bacteria that were beginning to biologically alter the wastes. Some of the material in the chamber stays suspended, while other parts sink. The suspended solids are skimmed off and sent down to the city’s other water reclamation plant at Wildcat Hill.
In the next step, the liquid enters a secondary chamber where it’s further clarified. It then flows indoors where it’s treated with ultraviolet light for a third step of purification.
Jim poured the water into a wineglass, and it looked good enough to drink. In fact, it’s graded as Class A+, but under Arizona regulations reclaimed water can’t yet be used as potable, or drinking, water.
Residents had lots of questions: Is the reclaimed water okay to put on plants? Is it safe to drink? Using reclaimed water for drinking will take getting over the “yuck” factor, said Erin Young, the city’s water conservation manager. She noted that Arizona is devising regulations that might make that a possibility.
The Rio de Flag plant can treat up to four million gallons of wastewater each day. In summer, nearly all the reclaimed water is spoken for –to irrigate fields, parks, and golf courses, some residences, and for industrial uses. In winter, the city sells excess reclaimed water to the Arizona Snowbowl for snowmaking. A certain percentage also goes back into the Rio. According to the city, reclaimed water accounts for about 20 percent of Flagstaff’s total water use.
Next time you see those purple pipes and signs indicating reclaimed water, it will have a whole new meaning.
A Big STEM City Thank You to Rose Houk for this post! And to Jim Huchel and Erin Young of the City of Flagstaff for this engaging and educational tour!