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Soaring Higher: Lock Haven University receives six-figure research grant from Department of Defense to study environmental contaminants

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Lock Haven University is one of three schools sharing a $1.43 million research grant to study per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), an emerging contaminant of concern in Pennsylvania waterways. The project is funded through the Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP).

In conjunction with researchers at Temple University and Drexel University, Lock Haven University Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Dr. Daniel Spooner will team up with LHU students to evaluate and test mechanisms that might explain how PFAS move through the food web of aquatic ecosystems.

PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals that do not occur naturally but are now found ubiquitously in the environment. They have unique chemical properties, and historically have been used as water repellents, fire suppressants, and non-stick coatings for common household items. PFAS are persistent in the environment, degrade slowly, and yet very little is known about how such compounds move through an ecosystem.

The project will run from fall 2020 until the summer of 2022. For Spooner’s portion of the study, Lock Haven University is receiving approximately $131,000. Spooner envisions a handful of LHU students — potentially up to six — to be paid for their role in the research.

Over the course of the two-year project, LHU students will have the opportunity to conduct research on an array of topics related to contaminant biology and the assessment of stream ecosystem health. Data from this project will inform managers on the complex behavior of PFAS, and facilitate the development of potential environmental mitigation strategies.

“This grant will provide exciting research opportunities to LHU students over the course of the project,” said LHU President Dr. Robert Pignatello. “I would like to commend Dr. Spooner for his hard work and for his role in securing this funding that will enable Lock Haven University biology students to build on what they are learning in class and explore real, current and meaningful environmental issues.”

“Hopefully, our project will shed some light on how complex chemicals like PFAS behave in our rivers, lakes and streams,” Spooner said. “The mesocosms used in this study will facilitate numerous student projects on a diverse array of environmental topics for many years after this particular project is completed.” 

As part of the project, Spooner and students will construct a series of artificial mesocosms, which are flumes designed to simulate freshwater stream ecosystems. These mesocosms will be housed on LHU’s campus and will consist of fish, invertebrates, and biofilms like algae, fungi and bacteria that occupy different compartments of stream ecosystems.

In addition to examining how organisms respond to PFAS exposure, Spooner and students will also evaluate if fish with different ecological traits have the capacity to augment or curtail the fate of PFAS in stream ecosystems — one of the more interesting facets of the study, according to Spooner.

“These are fairly complex studies that will give students experience in animal husbandry and quantifying metrics of ecosystem health,” Spooner said. “I’m hoping that students will gain some experience designing and implementing experiments.”

For more information on Lock Haven University, visit www.lockhaven.edu, email admissions@lockhaven.edu, or call 570-484-2011. 

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Lock Haven University’s main campus is located on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in the scenic mountains of Pennsylvania. The university offers 49 undergraduate majors and certifications with 47 minors and five graduate programs.

LHU is a member of Pennsylvania’s State System, the largest provider of higher education in the Commonwealth. Its 14 universities offer more than 2,300 degree and certificate programs in more than 530 academic areas of study. Nearly 520,000 system alumni live and work in Pennsylvania.

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